“So why do you think there are fewer women in STEM?”

This was how my admission to Aldwych House began. I’d rehearsed some answers, beforehand. I had them printed on flashcards. Actual cards with actual paper. I laminated them, trimming off every ribbon of transparent film like a jellyfish hangnail. But the moment that door opened for me — opened by itself, before I could even knock — I’d been off my game. And my sense of foreboding only grew as the lights in the hall pointed the way into the grand old sitting room where the interview now took place.

“I think there are a lot of answers to that question,” I said, finally. “I think there are as many reasons for women leaving science and technology fields as there are women leaving. Everyone has stories.”

The other girls nodded to themselves under their hoods. Some of the hoods gleamed with photonic crystal thread. Others appeared to be folded from paper. In the dimness, they looked like a coven of witches. Above, I thought I saw a cherub on the embossed copper ceiling unfurl its wings and settle in, as though it too were listening to our conversation.

“So what’s yours?”

She spoke from the shadows of a wing-backed chair at the edge of the room. Her hood was clone fur. White tiger. Maybe New England meant old money, after all.

“What’s my what?”

“Your story.” She pushed back her hood and shook free a cap of lilac curls. “Why did you leave California?”

“I needed a change. The SilValley culture has infected the feeder labs, and it’s created a toxic learning environment that’s more focused on acquiring VCs than learning the basics.” I tried making eye contact with the other members of the sisterhood. “Besides, this campus is one of the few that facilitates this kind of community. I think tech-savvy sororities are a great idea. I think we’d see more women stay in the field if they had this kind of support, and I think it presents opportunities for future advancement among legacy sisters.”

“We hear that answer a lot.” I couldn’t remember her name. It started with an M. A man’s name. Madison? Morgan? “But this isn’t rush season, and we’re not even supposed to be thinking about taking in someone new. Why did you really leave?”

I looked at the other sisters. They all looked away. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but do you not believe the answer I gave you?”

“No. I don’t.”

I sat back in my chair. The chair wriggled around me. “Well, I’m sorry it wasn’t good enough for you, but it’s the truth.”

“It’s not your truth, though, is it?” Slowly, she wove between sectionals and end tables. The other sisters tucked in their feet as she passed. “We’re a family, here. We’re sisters. We can’t trust you if you can’t share your truth with us.”

They knew. They knew the whole thing. These were the women of Aldwych House. They could doxx anybody.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I was raped. No, no one did anything about it. It went into mediation. Nothing happened. The end.”

“That’s why you’re here?”

“That’s why.” Now I met Mason’s gaze. Her eyes were almost colourless and curiously flat, like they secretly belonged on a fish. She was a beautiful girl by any standard, but her eyes didn’t match her face. They were the one piece missing. “Are we done?”

“Yes.” She beamed, and opened her arms. “Welcome!”


I thought about leaving. They’d invaded my privacy. But they were offering me a place in their house. Aldwych House. Every woman who was any woman in tech had lived under its gabled roof, behind its leaded windows. It was the golden ticket to internships, to capital, to respect. And so I stayed.

They stuck me in the basement. It was an enviable space: my own bathroom with my own shower, the same floor as the laundry room, even a little sitting area complete with futon. The girl who lived there before me had moved out unexpectedly. After I moved in, I finally understood why. It was just as low and dim as any other basement in a heritage Victorian house, but the presence of a root cellar behind the bedroom wall meant that winter’s chill leaked in despite my best efforts.

And then there were the dreams.

In the first dream my mouth was hangover dry. My eyelids gummed together. I felt my throat turn to leather, and then to cobwebs. I felt my cuticles pull back. I could almost hear it happening, the dry withering of my skin, my synapses firing ever more slowly.

Finally I peeled back the covers. They felt stiff with frost. To access the stairs up into the kitchen, I had to pass through the common area. But in the winter darkness of three a.m., I couldn’t find the door.

I leaned heavily against the wall. Its smooth expanse felt warmer than the air of my new space. I ran my arms across it, making a drywall angel. No door. No hinges. No lip of wood. Was there moulding around the door? I couldn’t remember. Maybe it had never been there. Maybe I was wrong. In the rush of moving in, maybe I had seen things differently than they actually were.

Obviously, what I had to do was go outside, and get to the kitchen through the front door.

I shuffled through snow. It clung to my feet. I had slippers, somewhere. In one of the bins. Or a bag. Not on my feet. The narrow strip of concrete between the house and the sagging chain-link fence stood piled thick with snow. It felt light. Like packing peanuts. Finally I understood the Yankee contempt for Californian comfort. I was soft, before. Coddled. That was my problem. That was why everything had happened. Because I was weak.

The house loomed high above the street. Higher, it seemed, than the bare birches and empty maples throwing their supplicant arms to the night sky. A single light burned in the attic. Mason’s room.

I looked down into my trembling hands and saw no keys.

I woke up in bed the next morning, and screamed at the white mounds of pillows that surrounded me.


In the next dream, my bedroom door opened directly into the root cellar. My fingers trailed over brick walls. My toes scraped over earthen floor. It should have been a small room, but in the dream it went on forever, and I kept walking into deeper and deeper darkness until the light from my bedroom door became an arrow-slit in the dusty black. And the longer I walked the closer the walls got, until the bricks scraped my shoulders and the roots tickled my scalp.

Then a hand grabbed mine and pulled it hard.

After that I dreamed that my bathroom door led only to a storage closet. Maybe the house was like clockwork, I thought, and all I had to do was wait for the hour to change and the gears to shift. I lay down in the bathtub and drew the curtain behind me. Sounds echoed up from the drain. Voices. A deep one, and a more lilting one. Chiding, almost. Girlish.

“…all the data!”


“An experiment…” I thought I had kept the thought inside my head, but the shower walls echoed my relief back to me. The voices died.


When I told the other women at Aldwych House about my dreams, they all shrugged. “That happens, sometimes,” a girl called Beth told me. Beth worked at the fabshop. Her hair smelled like burning plastic. “It’s a new house dream,” she said. “Everyone has them, when they move in.”

“I had them, too, when I moved here.” Cheyenne was working on the sustainable engineering degree. “I think it’s because of history of the place.”

“Yeah, just knowing how many other women have started out right here.” Deepa was working on a departmental honours thesis on the use of vagus nerve implants in juvenile diabetes patients. “There’s a legacy to live up to.”

“Like living in a haunted house.” Cheyenne let the statement hang, then followed it with a nervous little giggle when no one agreed.

“Cheyenne thinks the house is haunted.” Deepa rolled her eyes.

“My things kept moving! I’d leave something in one place in my room in the morning, and then it would be clear across the room when I came back.”

“You were taking Adderall.” Deepa got back to work on her motherboard.

“Only to get through finals.” Cheyenne drew her knees to her chest. “I don’t screw around with that kind of thing, any more. I don’t take anything artificial.”

Beth groaned. “Everything’s artificial.” She knocked on the mantlepiece. “This isn’t even real wood. You know that, right? It’s all programmable materials. They had to code it all back in, after the fire.”

“What fire?” I asked.

They turned to me, then back to their projects. “It was a while ago,” Deepa said.

“Where is Mason?” Cheyenne asked.

“Upstairs, in the attic, like usual,” Deepa said. “I’m surprised she even comes downstairs to eat. She has the best room in the whole house.”

“That view.” Beth sounded wistful. “That bay window.”

“She won it fair and square in the hackathon.” Deepa pointed with her soldering pencil. “She used to have your room, you know. The basement. But then she designed the best locking mechanism for the toolshed.”

“A keypad wasn’t good enough?”

As one, the sisters all sighed. “Yeah, if you want your stuff stolen,” Beth said. “Mason’s security system is bioresponsive. It’s…alive.”


“For lack of a better term. Her research is on programmable matter. So of course that’s what it is. Haven’t you gone to the toolshed?”

“My tools are still in California. Most of them, anyway.”

“Well, take a look. See if you can find the door.”

The sisters all snorted. Then they looked up at each other quickly, as though surprised and embarrassed by their shared bitterness. It was like the house itself, I realized. The whole structure made all of them uncomfortable, but none of them were willing to do anything about it.

“In my dream, I saw Mason’s light on.”

Under the coffee table, Cheyenne’s hand closed around my ankle. She squeezed it hard. I glanced at her, but her gaze remained fixed on Deepa’s soldering pencil. It smoked and hissed as it met metal.

“You should take pictures,” Beth said. “Of your room. In case you have that dream, again. So you’ll know exactly what it looks like. Then you can re-assure yourself, when you wake up.”

“That’s what I did,” Deepa said, “when I had those dreams.”


My visit to the toolshed was uneventful. Mostly because I couldn’t actually get in. The building had no doors. No windows. It appeared to be made of wood, but the texture of it was velvet under my fingers. It hummed gently as I ran a hand over it. Haptic. Responsive. Alive. And it didn’t like me. It didn’t want to let me in.

What was she building, in there?

The thing about historic New England universities is they get off on keeping every scrap of paper they’ve ever generated. It’s a sickness. A disease. A compulsion. They simply can’t let anything go.

Which makes it easy to retrieve things like the original blueprints of buildings like Aldwych House.

There was indeed a fire in Aldwych House. The campus paper characterized it as a minor indiscretion gone very wrong — a girl named Gilman, a Bunsen burner, a moment’s inattention. Exhaustion, her parents said. The stress of being a small-town overachiever finally meeting her betters, her classmates said. She took a semester off and never came back.

The fire started in the root cellar. Why Gilman chose to run her experiment there, and not the toolshed, was never explained. But for some reason, she felt secure doing it there. Gilman herself lived in the attic bedroom. The one with the view. The one Mason had taken “fair and square.”

It spread up and out, encompassing the whole basement before licking up into the living room. The stone foundations remained intact, but the wood and plaster went up like a prayer. Only the university’s heritage preservation society — the very one whose little museum, complete with gift shop, hosted my frantic research — could muster the funds from alumni and private donors to create a perfect replica of the lost rooms. One very generous donation came from an alumnus at Nahab, Inc., a design firm born from a thesis project at the university. Mr. Nahab had a double degree — materials science and architecture. His donation to the refurbishing project was to “grow” the rooms back to their former glory.

“We’ve always thought of smart sand as a fix for the robotics space,” Mr. Nahab said, in at the ribbon-cutting. “But given the right feedback mechanism, we can do almost anything with it.”

Nahab’s materials needed a few things. A steady power source. A complete picture of the thing they were building. And constant feedback, to let them know they were finished. You could rig the house to do that, of course — just like rigging the fridge to tell the cupboard it needed new baking soda. But they responded better — more organically — to data from implants. You needed a person there, to patrol the space and read temperature and humidity. You needed the input from their fingers and shoes. Someone to clean up, if the house spontaneously corrupted.

“An angel in the house,” as Nahab described it.

Then he thanked everyone at his company for all their help. Even the interns, who’d helped with the testing and prototyping. Even the single high school senior who’d won a competition for her spot. Her hair was longer then, and a different shade of purple. But I still knew her. Still recognized that smile that never quite met her flat, fishy eyes.





“Dreams in the Bitch House” sculptural illustration by Derek Newman-Stille. Photograph by Aaron Goldman.


Deepa was wrong. I didn’t need to take pictures. Not with the devices at my disposal. As I told the admissions department in my personal essay, at heart I’ve always been a gadget queen. Girls and their toys, right?

I call them RATS: Re-Active Tactile Systems. I only made up the acronym because the machines ended up looking a little bit like rats: soft little warm bodies covered in delicate sensor fur, stinger tails that sent the charge across whatever material I told them to. Originally, I designed them to sniff out poor signal latency in ambient networks. What they really are is a series of small joybuzzers that detect shifts in electric current in smart materials, and disrupt them.

First I let the RATS out of their box, stroking them to wake them up. Slowly they emerged, sniffing around the basement, tails twitching, fur pointing. They squeaked and chimed to each other as they crawled up and down the walls and along the baseboards. For the first time since joining Aldwych, I slept soundly.

The screeching woke me two hours later. The wall before me was glitched out. It hung, pixellated and half formed, stretching over my bed like a jagged impression of a hand. It smelled like burning sugar, but looked like ancient earth. The rats had it pinned: the wall flickered and so did they, sending sharp little shocks to arrest its growth.

A seam opened in the opposite wall. My ears popped. “You think you’re so smart, don’t you?”

Mason stepped through the seam. One of my rats raced up to stop the movement of the wall, and she snatched it in her fist. It buzzed in her hand, tail lashing out.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked. “All I wanted to was to join your fucking sorority! Is this some kind of hazing thing?”

Mason snorted. “Hazing? Bitch, please.” She opened her fist. The rat crawled up her arm. “I just wanted one of these. I knew you’d use them, eventually.”

“You mean it’s why Nahab wants them,” I said. “Right?”

She smirked. “Maybe. But what’s a little corporate espionage between sisters, you know?” She pointed. “You have no business complaining, anyway. Why do you think we admitted you? We didn’t have to. It was fucking January. I’m the one who bumped your application to the top of the pile. Me. The others just wanted to stick to the rules.”

For a moment, my focus faltered. “But… Why were you such a bitch to me in my interview?”

“Covering my tracks, obviously. But Nahab just had to have you.” She watched the rats pulsing along the walls and wrinkled her nose. “Or your research, anyway. Such as it is.”

“What’s he giving you in exchange? Another internship? A job? His dick?”

Mason pouted. “Don’t be vulgar,” she said. “I’m not like that.”

“Oh, no, you’d never sell out the sisterhood for your defence contractor crush.”

She had the grace to blush. “It’s not like that,” she said. “Really.”

I didn’t care how it was, honestly. Whatever awful bargain she’d made was her own business. What I wanted was to distract her somehow. “I would have shared this with you,” I said quickly. “You didn’t have to bully me into it. The code for these is open source. You could have downloaded it yourself.”

“But then I wouldn’t have a working prototype,” she said, watching the rat crawl along her other arm. “I’d have to build one from scratch. And there’s really no reason to do all that work.”

I gestured at the rats to change their pulse. I held them in readiness. We watched each other. She moved, and the walls moved. They sparked. They…rippled. Suddenly the dimensions of the room were changing. This was how she’d done it, how she’d changed the location of the doors. I was the one with the rats, but she was the one designing the maze. She grinned. For once, it reached her lifeless eyes. For a moment I saw a door behind her, a door with a curious shape, a door like none I’d ever seen. And I gestured at the rats again, and the one in Mason’s hand shrieked with power. The air filled with the smell of burning skin.

And then she was on the floor.

The walls began to melt. The floor went slick. I struggled to keep my balance. The floor pooled up around my ankles like quicksand. I jumped on the bed and it sank and I fell to my knees. The sudden charge must have fried Mason’s connection to the house. Whether it was implants or smart skin or whatever, she was the real foundation of the building. And now that foundation was crumbling.

“Help me,” Mason groaned. The floor was swallowing her. The walls jumped back and forth, as though uncertain which era to choose. Doors opened. Doors closed. One moment I saw the stairs to the kitchen, and the next they were obscured behind a thin skin of wall.

“Fuck you,” I said, and leapt for the nearest opening.


You’re probably wondering why I would share all of this with you. After all, I’ve just confessed to a crime. Not a crime anyone can ever prove, but still, a crime. I wish I could tell you it still haunts me, but it doesn’t. It just doesn’t. I think of her buried under the layers of her own deception and I feel nothing. At least, I feel nothing but good. I feel only relief. It’s the same relief I felt when I realized she was dead.

We always hope that the people who wrong us will be consumed with guilt. That it will follow them every day. That they’ll someday feel shame for having done it, or having gotten away with it. I used to believe that. But now I know differently. Every day, I wake up happy and free. I’m not afraid. I know nothing can hold me back, any longer. Nothing can stop me.

Nothing can stop us. Not unless we let it.

I just want you to know that, if we’re going to be sisters.

After all, it’s important that we share our truth.



About the Author

Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and futurist living in Toronto. She is the author of the Machine Dynasty series of novels, as well as Company Town, from Tor Books. She also writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She has developed science fiction prototypes for organizations including the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, the Atlantic Council, and others. You can find her at madelineashby.com or on Twitter @MadelineAshby











About the Illustrator

Derek Newman-Stille is a visual artist, writer and PhD student at the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies at Trent University. Derek researches Canadian Urban Dark Fantasy and the use of the symbol of the monster for exploring the representation of disability issues. He runs the multi-Aurora-winning website Speculating Canada, and you can view more of his visual art here.











Hello Madeline, and thanks for agreeing to the interview. While many of our readers will likely be familiar with your fiction and work as an anthologist, could you begin by telling us a little about who you are, what you have written and are writing, and your work as a futurist and consultant?

Thank you for inviting me!

To summarize, I’m a science fiction writer and a futurist. I’m the author of the Machine Dynasty series from Angry Robot Books, and I have a novel called Company Town coming out from Tor this year, and another novel, tentatively titled Upstart, coming out from Tor next year. I also have a column in the Ottawa Citizen, although I live in Toronto. I’ve written what are called science fiction prototypes for Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, and others.


What was your initial impetus for writing speculative fiction?

I had always been a consumer of genre material — my parents were big nerds who encouraged me to watch ST: TNG and The X-Files and stuff like that. My dad also had a bunch of genre fiction around the house; I read his copies of the Dune novels when I was in high school. And I also read a lot of my mom’s Stephen King novels and short story collections long before that. So in a way it was very natural that I turned to spec fic. But I made a conscious decision to go for it after attending an Ursula K. LeGuin reading in Seattle, when I was doing a departmental honours project on her work. She read from “The Wave in Mind,” and I was lost.

Which came first, your career as a writer of spec fic or your career as a professional futurist? How have the two shaped one another since?

The former. I was already in a writers’ workshop, the Cecil Street Irregulars, when another workshop member, Karl Schroeder, suggested I get my second masters’ degree from the Strategic Foresight & Innovation program at OCADU. And it was there, thanks to Cory Doctorow, that I started working with Brian David Johnson and Genevieve Bell at Intel Labs. And the rest is history!

In your work as a professional futurist, what emerging technologies have
 recently awed or terrified you the most?

I could tell you, but I signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Your Machine Dynasty novels, set in an indeterminate, but seemingly not-too-distant, future focus on synthetic, self-replicating human(oid)s called von Neumann machines (vN), and their vexed relationship with the human society that created them. The first novel, vN, is largely from the point of view of a young vN named Amy, who is part of a mixed organic-synthetic family unit, her mother being vN, but her father an organic human. Why did you decide to use this “blended family” structure as the jumping-off point for the novel?

The prologue to vN, which is told from an organic human perspective, started out as a short story. It was going to be a story about this guy discovering that his wife and daughter were actually machines, and what that meant about him as a person. Then I realized that was sort of a Twilight Zone plot, and the really interesting story was about the robots themselves, interacting with other robots, and cutting the humans out of the conversation. So even after I decided to expand the story into a book, I maintained that original nucleus of the blended family structure.

As a reader of vN, in the early chapters of the novel I often found myself (like Amy’s father, and at least initially, Amy herself) having to resist a tendency to think about Amy in all-too-human developmental and cultural terms as “a child.” What inspirations, and difficulties, did you encounter in capturing Amy’s particular voice and psychology?

It was actually really tough. I didn’t quite love Amy until my third pass on the book. I wrestled with how “childish” she should be, how she should express herself, what she would know about the world, how she would see it. It was important to me that she be clever and resourceful, but also innocent. Until the events of the novel, Amy’s inhabited a fairly privileged position in society. She’s been insulated from a lot of the prejudices humans have against vN. But then she goes on the run, and experiences the wider world for the first time, and discovers how other vN are being treated. So I started thinking about innocence. And I tried to maintain Amy’s sense of innocence throughout. She’s a very naive person who shares headspace with a very jaded person. And that innocence means she doesn’t quite think through the consequences of her actions, sometimes.

You’re not a writer of horror fiction in a generic sense of the word, but some of your short fiction, as well as both vN and ID feature tremendously disturbing material – scenes of harrowing violence, unsettling grotesquerie, and an interrogation of cultural taboos and ontological limits, aspects often associated with horror fiction. How would you characterize your work’s relationship with horror as a genre, or its use of horror as a mode? Are there any horror writers, or fictions, that have made a particular mark on your own writing?

Wow, thanks! I’m glad you found it tremendously disturbing. People tell me that, but I like seeing it in writing.

I’m actually a fairly avid fan of horror. I’ll watch horror films for comfort. I read horror novels fairly regularly. (I read both of Michael Rowe’s novels last year, and I’m currently reading Gemma Files’ Experimental Film. I also think you can classify Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black series as sort of pop-adventure-horror, and I love those books.) This all started when I was an infant, and I chewed on my mother’s paperback copy of Stephen King’s Night Shift collection. (The one with the eyes.) “I cut my teeth on that book,” I told my husband, before we were together. “So did I,” he said, smirking. He’s a horror writer. For our wedding my mother gave us her first-edition illustrated copy of The Gunslinger.


“The one with the eyes.”

I started reading King more seriously (and not literally eating his books) when I was in Grade 5. This other girl in my class told on me to the teacher and said I was reading things I shouldn’t. This was America, where they’re more concerned about that kind of thing, I guess. (Also she just hated me.) But the teacher didn’t have a problem with it, so that year I read The Shining and a bunch of other things. Mom drew the line at The Stand, for some reason, so I only read that when I hit fourteen.

But in terms of my own work, I think what horror brings to the table is a focus on emotion. It’s the only genre that’s named for the feeling it creates in the reader. And I think that ability to reach right inside the reader and grab her guts and twist them in your fingers, that’s priceless. Horror cuts through all the bullshit of daily life in a really important way. It wants to focus you, to strap you in and slap you around and get you to live in the moment. And that’s not just the sensation of terror that does that. Horror is mostly despair. If you read Straub’s Ghost Story, for example, that’s a novel about despair. Sure there’s a scary monster, but the heart of the book is really the friendship between these four elderly men, and how it’s changed over decades, and the bittersweet beauty of watching them age together but die alone. It’s a heartbreaking novel. The best horror fiction is always heartbreaking on some level. There’s always some tragic streak running through it, some element that reminds you of the transience of life, of all the things undone and unsaid. Real monsters never just devour a life. They devour the potential for a good life, well-lived.

Clowns are staple figures in horror fiction, as they cause unease in many people. Reading ID caused me to once again consider the reasons for this. The novel’s vN protagonist Javier, faced with a man clad in a Mump and Smoot t-shirt, justifies his hatred of clowns, thinking “They really threw the Turing process into all kinds of hell.” Can you elaborate on this? How do you, personally, feel about clowns? Were you, too, ever totally fucking weirded out by a Mump and Smoot performance?

I don’t really feel one way or the other about clowns. I think the creepiest thing about them is their stated mission to cheer you up no matter what. I think anybody that tries to force happiness or cheeriness on you is creepy. As for the t-shirt, my husband has one, and he told me about the performances, and it seemed like a good fit. So to speak.


Editor’s note: I saw a Mump and Smoot show in Calgary in 2008, and thought I’d fallen into Ligotti’s story “Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech.”

One of the conceptual touchstones of the series is Mori’s hypothesis of the uncanny valley. How accurate do you think Mori’s theory is? How “hardwired” do you think our emotional response to synthetic humanoids is, and how malleable do you think it will prove to be with cultural and technological change?

As animals we have a real knack for picking out other animals that move and sound different from the way we do. And that’s caused a lot of prejudice: in the West, we used to see scoliosis — or indeed, any kind of physical difference — as a punishment from God, instead of a basic quirk of biology. But it’s really because we as a species have optimized ourselves to pick up on subtle differences that might tell us something vital about the people surrounding us, like whether they’re sick or healthy, or if they might suddenly attack us, or if they’re staring at us, or what have you. And part of the Uncanny Valley idea relates to that, that subtle differences can actually feel more important than big ones. We don’t despise robots that try to look like dogs, for example, but we do when they try to look like us.

But I do think it’ll end up being more malleable as humanoid-seeming interfaces become more common. No one cares that Siri and Cortana aren’t “humans.” No one cares that the algorithms that decide your day trades or your traffic flows aren’t humans.

It struck me as I read both vN and ID that the referentiality of the writing, and the culture of this speculative near-future reality, depends on a high degree of genre-competence from the reader. Would you say you are writing primarily for an already genre-savvy audience? Does the risk of losing or alienating readers who are not already well-versed in speculative fiction concern you?

I didn’t really worry about it. I mean, maybe I should have, now that you mention it. But I suppose I was also, in my first book, trying to establish my nerd cred. I wanted to show readers that I’d done my homework. I worry about that a little bit less, now, but it was a concern of mine with vN especially.

In a commentary on the io9 website, you’ve said your work is often described as “hard s-f with characters in it,” but that you think the distinction between hard and soft sf itself is an unhelpful one. You go on to say:

And when you look at other genres, they have a far wider spectrum of descriptions for sub-genres. High fantasy. Low fantasy. Epic fantasy. Grimdark. Noir. Psycho-thriller. Psycho-sexual thriller. Gothic. Gaslight. Those are just a few. I would argue that the rich array of descriptors is one of the reasons fantasy and other genres outsell SF on a consistent basis. Those genres have a bunch of avenues to offer an audience. SF has only a binary system. What reader doesn’t want more choice?

First, do you think that term “hard sf” is less useful now than when P. Schuyler Miller coined it nearly 60 years ago primarily because of the pace at which scientific knowledge and technological development have increased since then, or do you think it has more to do with changes in literary culture and the readership of sf, or other factors altogether?

It’s both. I do think it has to do with the fact that we live in a science fictional present. Technology is developing so quickly, and is so thoroughly enmeshed and embroidered into our daily lives, that it no longer feels like a whiz-bang McGuffin from a story about the future. So to make ideas about the future carry more weight in a narrative, you need to incorporate tropes and gestures from other genres. At the same time, readers are more familiar than ever before with those other genres.

Second, a question that likely reflects my curmudgeonly bias against literary labels like those you list above, which seem like little more than marketing brands to me, why do you think the diversity of such labels has such an appeal to readers? Do you think that the circulation of these terms actually corresponds to a greater literary diversity in the more fantastic realms of speculative fiction than in those grounded in a scientific and technological realist approach?

Well, I think in general we live in a saturated media environment where aggressive filtering is necessary. Think about how granular and specific Netflix can learn to be about your preferences. “Dark Mysteries With Strong Female Lead.” “Teen Reality Dramas.” And so on, and so forth. We live with huge bookstores both online and off, and cable packages with hundreds of channels, and streaming content for our eyes and ears, and the only way to sort through all that is to label and organize things. (Search engine optimization wouldn’t be the big deal that it is if this weren’t the case.)

As to whether that leads to actual diversity in terms of content, that’s another thing. I think one of the problems with that aggressive filtering and organization is that it slots readers (and all consumers) into a very narrow place. The market doesn’t care if your tastes are diverse, or if you feel challenged as a reader, or if your mind is expanding. The market cares only that you keep buying, and the easiest way for you to keep buying is to keep giving you a version of the thing you bought before. Amazon works this way, and so does most everyone else.

At the same time, there’s a growing trend toward curation at all levels. You see it in those subscription boxes full of samples of things. People very much want surprise and serendipity. They want to discover something new. But the act of discovery is almost impossible in a world where all knowledge is available at the tips of your fingers. So we have to plan for serendipity. We have to create it as a line item on the budget, or a tick-box on the agenda. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a “book of the month” clubs come back, via Amazon probably, for exactly this reason. Kindle Unlimited is halfway there, but there’s no curation and it’s not very user-friendly. (It’s also unavailable in Canada.)

Third, in terms of your own fiction, given that “hard sf” is characterized by close attention to technical detail and scientific plausibility, I wonder to what extent these criteria universally inform your fiction? What kind of research did you undertake toward achieving these goals, especially in the Machine Dynasty novels? Does your fiction ever deliberately depart from these criteria? How critical do you think fidelity to existing scientific principles and technology are for socially conscious speculative fiction in general?

We live in a very anti-intellectual era. Sure, our leaders carry phones that could run an Apollo mission, but the actual application of the scientific method to everyday life is lacking. We still have to convince legislators that global warming is a thing, and that we’re responsible as a species. So I try to stick to science in my fiction that’s at least plausible. I tried to get a little weirder in my latest book, Company Town, but that was a conscious decision — I wanted to talk about weird futures. I wanted to get more “Phildickian,” if you will.


Ashby’s fourth novel, forthcoming from TOR later this year, is a more Phildickian fiction.

The Machine Dynasty novels carry on a critical dialogue with many earlier speculative imaginings of artificial intelligence and synthetic humanoid life. One example that struck me was the novels’ portrayal of the vN’s failsafe. This aspect of the book is, in many ways, a contemporary re-imagining of Asimov’s positronic brain. How centrally did you have Asimov’s fiction in mind while writing these novels? What kind of technological, philosophical and cultural developments in the intervening years were most important for your pretty radical re-conception of the relationship between the machines and humans?

I thought about Asimov’s work a lot, and the total absurdity of the Three Laws. Asimov’s stories about the Three Laws are basically programming story problems. They’re riddles. And I never really connected with them emotionally or aesthetically.

Another sci-fi touchstone for the Machine Dynasty novels is, of course, Philip K. Dick, especially his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which provides the name of an important machine-friendly bar in the novel, which also features machinic beverages named after other Dick novels.) How important has Dick’s work been for you personally? More broadly, why do you think it continues to have so much significance for contemporary speculative fiction?

I think Dick ended up nailing the future. Part of the reason his work endures is that a) he was a better prose writer than his contemporaries, and b) his worlds still feel like they could arrive tomorrow, and c) his characters feel like actual people. They’re small and petty and they get scared and they feel lust. They’re quotidian. And his futures feel really quotidian — they feel lived-in. So that aspect of realism helps you buy into the weirdness of what he’s selling.

But there’s also that weirdness. And I think the weirdness is crucial. I think what Dick did better than anybody was push into how weird the future can feel, how tomorrow can feel uncertain, not to mention five years or fifty or five hundred years from now.

Ridley Scott’s cinematic adaptation of Dick’s novel as Blade Runner remains a major cultural locus for the relationships between the machines and humans in this fictional world. Why did you decide to make the film such a central reference point, especially in VN? Was this decision based on its greater prominence in contemporary popular culture, or do you think the film stages questions of identity and artificial intelligence more powerfully than Dick’s novel itself?

Blade Runner is just really important to me. I saw it for the first time in the third grade, sitting in my basement with my dad, because my mom wouldn’t let me see Batman Returns. So it was a special occasion, and maybe I imprinted on it for that reason. But every time I see it I see something new. I wish Ridley Scott were still making really slow, meditative films like that. It has these great moments of visceral violence, so people think it’s an action film (in the same way they think Alien is an action film, when it’s really a horror film), but it’s this really thoughtful character study about the nature of humanity and empathy.

Your exploration of the way human sexuality informs the VN, and the way their own sexuality, largely divorced from reproduction, develops in response to this is worlds apart from both Asimov’s and Dick’s fiction. The novel’s focus on the often disturbingly predatory dimensions of human sexuality evoked the work of James Tiptree, Jr. for me. How important has her work been for you as a writer? What are some of the other influences (whether literary or social) that fed your imagining of the cultural and technological consequences of human sexuality with these novels?

I didn’t discover her until much later, actually. I was already at work on the book when I read my first Tiptree story. (At least, my first story of hers outside of a classroom environment.) But I read a collection of hers at a really difficult, chaotic time in my life. And her rage became a source of strength for me. I really grabbed onto it with both hands. It was something real at a time when nothing felt real.

But our language for describing sexuality has evolved a great deal, as well, so that I could find the words I needed to tell that story far more easily than I might have in other years. I think women are freer now to talk about things like micro-aggressions or other predatory behaviours, and how the world has geared itself to view us (and having sex with us) as a prize to be won (or even just a trophy for participation). So I felt perfectly justified telling the story of what it feels like to be vulnerable that way, and also to discover one’s own vulnerability. I think that’s part of the loss of innocence theme in the first novel. The first thing you lose as a girl growing up is the sense that your body is your own. You discover it’s not. You thought it was yours, but it wasn’t. It belongs to everyone else. It’s there for everyone else to comment on, or to touch, or to judge. And I think Amy’s discovery that the world thinks she’s just a doll to be played with is a good metaphor for that.

Sexuality is also vitally important for the vN, for whom it is largely divorced from both the reproductive process and from natal sex, and yet vN sexuality remains in certain respects conditioned by the sexuality of their human engineers. The phenomenology of vN sexuality is explored with startling intimacy and vividness, especially in ID. What can you tell us about how you conceived of this parallel sexuality? What were some of the greatest difficulties and inspirations you encountered in exploring this aspect of the vN protagonists’ experiences?

In vN I wanted to talk about that loss of innocence, but in iD I wanted to explore a sexuality that was already fully-formed. Part of Amy’s journey in vN is realizing that she’s queer for other robots. She doesn’t love or even like humans the way she’s supposed do. She may fall for a boy-shaped robot, but the fact that she even enjoys other robots is far more disturbing to the humans around her. It means she’ll choose her own kind over the humans that built her. So there’s a bit of the novel that’s her examining and accepting that “broken” piece within her.

Javier is on a different journey, though. He loves humans. But he also loves them without having any choice in the matter. We none of us can choose who we love, but we can choose how we deal with it, and Javier doesn’t have that latter choice. He’s just trapped in this loop of toxic relationships. And I wanted to explore what it’s like to see those relationships for what they are, and how tempting it can be to fall back into your old patterns. I think the robots in my stories have always been “self-aware,” to use an AI term, but what Javier gains in iD is true self-awareness. He’s always been conscious, but he becomes conscious of himself and his own choices. He stops running on auto-pilot and starts making meaningful decisions for himself.

You’ve commented elsewhere that the third Machine Dynasty novel is going to take place from the perspective of Portia, “the evil grandmother robot who gets eaten alive by the protagonist in the first novel.” Portia’s a fascinating, and frightening, character. Can you tell us a little about your inspirations in creating her, and perhaps give us a little teaser in terms of the directions Portia’s story will take in the third and final novel in the series?

Portia was actually quite simple for me to create. Her voice flowed from me all too easily. When I thought of her, I thought of Sian Phillips’ performance as Livia in I, Claudius. She’s that same devouring mother figure who views her children as extensions of herself rather than as their own people. So she’s also a bit of a Joan Crawford/Mommie Dearest figure. In general I tend to think of her as a kind of diva. She’s a Norma Desmond, for sure — controlling, vicious, needy, delusional. She just isn’t as glamourous. Then again, I don’t think she feels the need for glamour; she already knows she’s more beautiful than humans can ever be, and she knows she’s stronger. So she’s profoundly vain, but she also doesn’t feed that vanity with, say, clothes or jewelry. She feeds it by killing humans.


Sian Philips as Livia in I, Claudius (1976), an inspiration for Ashby’s Portia.

Reading ID, it struck me that the architectural style of Holberton’s home, retrofuturism, works as a kind of metonym for the technological and cultural aesthetics of the Machine Dynasty’s setting as a whole. But it is a retrofuturism completely different from the Golden Age nostalgia that William Gibson evocatively captured in his early short story “The Gernsback Continuum.” My impression of the world of Machine Dynasty is one in which a 1980s and 1990s retro-craze is in full effect. Am I projecting my own youthful nostalgia, here, or is there more to this impression? If so, why these cultural epochs, specifically?

I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but it’s possible. Certainly we’re seeing that nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s now, as people who were kids at the time have some buying power to invest in the Doc Martens they could never afford back then. And we’re seeing it in media, with the return of things like The X-Files and Twin Peaks. So on some level that’s already happening. As for how I felt while writing the books, I was definitely influenced by things like mid-to-late 90’s cyberpunk anime. Stuff like Evangelion, Serial Experiments Lain, Ghost in the Shell. They were all these stories about identity and technology and the relationship between the two, with really well-defined, memorable female characters who steered their own course throughout the story.


Late 90s cyberpunk anima was a major influence on the Robot Dynasty novels. A still from Ghost in the Shell (1995.)

You’ve mentioned in previous interview that a viewing of Cronenberg’s film A History of Violence with your husband, Canadian horror writer David Nickle, led you to completely re-think vN’s opening. Can you tell us a little more about this?

A History of Violence has a great opening. It’s this very sweet, pastoral, small-town scene that explodes into terrible violence. It’s sort of like Twin Peaks, in that way — that juxtaposition of Gothic secrets against small-town life in America. The opening of vN doesn’t take place in a small town, but it does take place in a smallish community, where everybody knows each other — or they think they do.

This description of small­town reality brings back to mind the title of your forthcoming novel, Company Town. You’ve mentioned that it is something of a different, weirder, and more “Phildickian” kind of fiction. What more can you tell us about it, by way of giving our readers a teasing sense of what they can expect from it?

Company Town is the story of Go Jung-hwa, a bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada Local 314. She lives in New Arcadia, a city of autonomous towers floating around a dead oil rig 500 km NE of St. John’s, Newfoundland. After she kicks the right guy in the face, she winds up working as a bodyguard for the heir apparent of the company that buys her city. The kid has been getting death threats from the future. So Hwa has to escort him everywhere he goes, including physics class. Hwa isn’t sure which is worse: posthuman nightmares intent on killing her and her client, or going back to the high school she dropped out of years ago. Until her friends start to die.

That’s just the story, though. The book is a hard-bitten noir on the one hand, and on the other it’s a deeply weird SF story, and also it’s sort of a bildungsroman of this young woman having to confront a lot of issues she’s grown up with. It’s also a big critique of corporate Singulitarianism. At least, it pokes fun at that kind of thinking. Hwa is one of the most profane, violent, funny characters I’ve ever written. I love her.

During the course of this interview, the international speculative fiction community was crushed by the sudden loss of genre-defining editor extraordinaire, David G. Hartwell. Had  you  worked with David at TOR on Company Town? Can you tell us a little about his role, his importance for you?

Actually, I didn’t work with David on this book. My editors were Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Miriam Weinberg. I was lucky enough to have met and hung out with David a bunch of times, and I was featured in one of his Year’s Best anthologies, as well as 21st Century Science Fiction. I also worked closely with Kathryn Cramer on Project Hieroglyph, and on a narrative hackathon at ASU’s Centre for Science and the Imagination. (The results of that hackathon later on went to become a WorldBank project.) So while I never worked with him very closely, I got to know him a bit, and I’m very grateful for that. He was so welcoming to me, even at the start of my career. He always had time to listen. He was gracious, in a way that people these days often aren’t.

This interview accompanies PstD’s publication of your original short story, “Dreams In the Bitch House.” Can you tell our readers a little about the impetus that led to the story, the context in which you wrote it, and the relationship between this context and the story that finally emerged from it?

For the Institute for the Future, I had written a story called “Social Services,” which was a take-off on The Haunting of Hill House. It was about the future of networked matter and IoT. So when Chris Speed at Design in Action approached me about coming to Scotland and telling a story, I thought this would be a great opportunity to follow that up. (He also told me he really liked “Social Services,” and wanted a slightly creepy story to talk about the haunted-ness of IoT.) So I started thinking about uncanny architecture, and Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House” came up, and I’d wanted to do a story called “The Dreams in the Bitch House” for just ever, and this was the best possible opportunity.

Beginning with the title itself, the story involves some very striking and inventive allusions to Lovecraft’s fiction. How did Lovecraft suppurate into this piece?

Oh, it was entirely intentional. I set out to do a pastiche very deliberately. I had done one earlier based on Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, for the Institute for the Future, in a story called “Social Services.” And so I wanted to follow that up. It meant reading Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House,” which is just a slog to get through. But it was also a way for me to write about an apartment I had in Little Italy once.

Like vN, “Dreams in the Bitch House” features an inter-generational power struggle between an amoral matriarchal figure and a young female protagonist who must resist this figure in trying to maintain her own individuality and authority. Why is this conflict such a central concern in your fiction? Does this conflict have particular autobiographical, social, or literary roots?

Well, I think that dynamic is at the root of a lot of fairytales, really. The pure princess supplants the evil queen. That’s why Gaiman’s story “Snow, Glass, Apples,” is so amazing — it subverts that tradition so beautifully. It’s also something that plays out in one of my husband’s most popular stories, “The Sloan Men,” which is in his first story collection. But really it’s everywhere — hell, it’s the central plot of The Devil Wears Prada, for goodness’ sake.

Because of this conflict, one of the things that kept coming to mind for me while reading both vN and “Dreams in the Bitch House” is Jackson, especially The Haunting of Hill House – tonally, stylistically, worlds apart, but that resonance seems no less powerful for it. (How) has Jackson’s fiction been important for you?

Jackson is enormously important to me as a writer and a feminist and as someone living at the intersection of those two modes. I think Jackson deserves a lot of credit for acknowledging how hard it was for her to be a writer and a mother at the same time. She didn’t sugarcoat it. She made it funny, but I think that was as much a survival mechanism as anything else. (It was also a way for her to make money. If you’re going to suffer, at least get paid for it.) As with Tiptree, I think there’s this well of anger at the core of her work. It comes out more slyly; I think she had to be more careful, because of her time period and because she wasn’t behind a pseudonym. But it’s there. You can feel it informing all her observations of the world around her.

Thanks for your insightful responses, Madeline Ashby!

Readers, if you haven’t already done so, you can read “Dreams in the Bitch House,”in print for the first time, here.


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Aickman’s Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas (Undertow Publications, 2015.)

She Walks in Shadows, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles (Innsmouth Free Press, 2015.)

Holy A’Hallows, Happy Hallowe’en, scary-sacred Samhain, and joyous Great Pumpkin Flyby day, dear readers. Since it is Halloween weekend, and since this weekend also sees the convention on Canadian Speculative Fiction, CanCon, coming to Ottawa, this seems an opportune time to share with you a two-pronged pitchfork of eerie book reviews. Both are seasonally creepy, and, while including work from many international writers, both are from Canadian publishers and editors.

While any publisher or literary agent will tell you that, from a careerist perspective, a great short story is a business card to try to sell your novel (or a gateway drug to get readers to try it), the short story remains, in my books, probably the most aesthetically and conceptually important form for the literary exploration of the weird, the horrific, the strange, and the unsettling.

The combination of concentration the form requires, and authorial imaginative power it enables, means a gifted writer can conjure and sustain an affective intensity with a short story that is more difficult, if not impossible, to maintain over the multiple interrupted reading periods required by a novel.

Insofar as horror and the weird are literary modes directly linked to an occurrent emotional response, then, the short story is particularly well suited to their expression. Closely related to this is the maintenance of epistemological uncertainty, the cultivation of the uncanny, the unknown and the unstable, that is so often central to the effects of good horror and weird fiction. A work of short weird fiction can, to mangle some metaphors, fly in below the radar of readerly skepticism more quickly, crossing the blood-brain barrier of the imagination rapidly and delivering its effect before the reader’s rational resistances are fully mustered and the white blood cells of disbelief and disengagement are unleashed.

But this efficient invasion of the reader’s mind is just the beginning. Once it gets in there, a great work of short weird or horrific fiction is just getting started. Really great stories are virulent and insidious, and the initial emotional intensity is just the first symptom of an acute infection that is already becoming chronic.

While the affective state the story conjures, the mood it immerses the reader in, is ephemeral, it leaves behind a lasting impression, a psychic residue. It causes a cognitive or perceptual shift that, however minor, however subtle, however (in some cases) subliminal, continues to haunt the reader long after the story has been read and set aside, the book closed, the device (and perhaps the reader) put to sleep.

As Gemma Files so aptly puts it, great horror and weird fiction should leave a scar.

To wit, two recent short story collections whose contents have lately been scanned, felt, pondered, and put aside by me, only to have my mind return, unbidden, to them:

The first is Aickman’s Heirs.


As the title suggests, the collection offers a selection of fictions that in some way bear the influence of Robert Aickman, a British writer who specialized in unsettling narratives (what he himself called “strange stories;” Matt Seidel makes some telling remarks about Aickman’s fiction here. )

The volume’s cover image is by Yaroslav Gerzhedovich. With its silent, misty scenery and distant, alienated figures, it is a striking evocation of the spirit of a writer Fritz Leiber described as “a weatherman of the subconscious.” Aickman was famed for his use of precisely controlled language and vivid characterization in creating an unease irreducible to the seemingly supernatural phenomena that occur in some of his tales (many, indeed, bear none of the more conventional stigma of horror or supernatural fiction at all.)

Strantzas’ introduction stresses that the book is not “merely a collection of writers doing their best to reproduce something so uniquely Aickman,” but rather a sampling of how Aickman’s fiction “has become a significant source of inspiration for contemporary writers.” The collection demonstrates the power of Strantzas’ editorial vision. Rather than a clutch of stylistic pastiches, it showcases a number of writers working from diverse approaches, moving through manifold modes, and yet all somehow converging in a vague and anxious shared space that is acutely Aickmanic (I will hereafter resist my temptation to unleash a series of bad puns based on the name, I promise, much as my vulgar palate is tickled by the prospects of Aickmannerist, Aickmantic, etc.)

The line-up of represented writers represents some of the most vital and insistent voices in weird fiction, dark fantasy, and horror today, and many of them will certainly be familiar to PstD readers: Helen Marshall, (our featured poet from PstD 4), David Nickle (read his PstD interview here,)  Michael Cisco (read his PstD interview here,) John Langan (look for his author feature in the coming weeks) are among the contributors.

While heterogeneous in style and approach, the stories are consistently fascinating and effective at generating tension and planting seeds of lingering doubt and dread. Among my favourites is Richard Gavin’s “Neithernor,” which takes a fundamental aesthetic concept from the British artist/occultist Austin Osman Spare as its inspiration, using the disintegrating consciousness of a desperate narrator to suggest to the reader a strange shape, forming ominously beyond the figures drawn by a neurotic artist, beyond the figures of the words on the page. Michael Cisco uses his clinical linguistic precision and suggestive perceptual fragmentation to shattering effect in “Infestations,” a tale of urban identity crisis (and public transportation). In John Langan’s “Underground Economy,” a woman’s troubled recollections suggest the omnipresence of a threat she, and we, can never quite identify. Archaeology and the compulsive power of the past forms the basis for Helen Marshall’s “The Vault of Heaven.” Nina Allan‘s “A Change of Scene” is among the most direct in its response to Aickman’s influence, forming a critical dialogue with one of his better known, and more overtly supernatural (or is it?) stories, “Ringing the Changes,” while conjuring up its own unique cold hand to clamp the reader’s.

Aickman’s Heirs is a fascinating selection, and a must-have not only for admirers of Aickman’s fiction, but also for all lovers of uncanny literature.

Now, for the second anthology whose dim-litten praises I wish to sing: She Walks in Shadows.


This volume is also (at least in one sense) an author-homage inspired collection. In this case, the author in question is the ubiquitous Mr. Lovecraft, as She Walks showcases Lovecraftian fiction by (and featuring) women. The tenor of this volume’s paean to Lovecraft is rather one of critical provocation than respectful admiration; it is a tenor that proves just as productive for the contributing writers, who use it as a base note in synthesizing a string of discordant, haunting, harrowing, and sometimes also hilarious little symphonies in the key of HPL.

The anthology is in part an acknowledged, and much-needed, response to what the editors aptly call “a paucity of women in Lovecraft’s tales. Kezia, Lavinia and Asenath are his most notable women, even if they never take center stage.” It is also a potent provocation to the masculinist bias that operates in much contemporary weird/horror fiction and in the minds of some contemporary Lovecraft fans. The editors explain that “the first spark was the notion, among some fans of the Lovecraft Mythos, that women do not like to write in this category, that they can’t write in this category.”

That may have been the spark, but the volume itself is an inferno. My reservations before reading She Walks stemmed rather from a personal lack of interest in too-overtly “Mythos” fiction. I tend to be drawn to work that explores the Lovecraftian terrain of the weird and the cosmic without the tired tropisms of tentacled Yog-Sothothery. Or so I keep telling myself, before once again being knocked down by the originality and power one or another recent writer manages to inject into one of Lovecraft’s Mythos-fixtures. She Walks presents a surging slew of cases in point. It is a cornucopia of imaginative force and literary talent, and each of the fictions it contains works, in some way, to simultaneously expand and interrogate the limits of what “Lovecraftian” can mean.

The mingling of the gorgeous with the grotesque that characterizes the cover image by Sarah K. Diesel is a perfect visual prelude for the fictions (and poems, in the case of Anne K. Schwader‘s lyrical opening, and illustrations, as She Walks also compiles many stunning pieces of black and white interior images, which don’t illustrate individual stories so much as play off some of the same Lovecraftian themes and images that the stories do) that follow. Unlike those in Aickman’s Heirs, these stories generally involve aspects of overt pastiche or parody. However, their more explicit allusions to Lovecraft’s fictions (or his biography or family history, as in the case of one of my favourites, Penelope Love’s “Turn Out the Light,”) provide the skeletons over which most of the stories manage to spread strange, startling new flesh. Among the most seductively lyrical and simultaneously repulsive examples is Gemma Files‘ “Hairworks” 

While so many of the stories in She Walks merit admiration and analysis,  I’m going to limit myself now to spilling a few words of praise particularly for the one writer whose fictions are included both here and in Aickman’s Heirs. Nadia Bulkin‘s name was, up until this point, relatively unknown to me, but it is a name I will continue to seek out. Her story from Heirs, “Seven Minutes in Heaven” is a fantastic example of how the most lucid and finical use of language can accumulatively create an Aickmaniacally (so sue me) vague sense of disturbance that persists long after the story’s words fade from conscious memory. “Seven Minutes in Heaven” weaves together a curious children’s game, a small community’s only slightly skewed version of Christian faith, and the recognition that we can never really leave our childhood beliefs behind, creating a startlingly short but complex narrative whose apocalyptic consequences continue to accrue after its conclusion.

Her story from She Walks, “Violet is the Color of Your Energy,” uses as its skeleton a pastiche of Lovecraft’s “Colour Out of Space,” (including an admirably over-the-top port-manteau’ing of Ammi Pierce with Ambrose Bierce) but shoots off into a critical meditation on genetically modified farming, the cellular and micro-organismal roots of our (or its?) identity and humanity and…. well, other abstruse truths which cannot be named.

So, in closing, readers, you should all rush out and buy these tomes, immediately. Waiting until Monday may prove too late.

After all, if the Great Pumpkin veers from its course,  the cosmic dark will come down for us all, before you’ve read the warnings these stories might provide.

And thanks, Strantzas, Moreno-Garcia and Stiles, and your contributors, for the apocalyptic preoccupations, for the cognitive and perceptual stains you’ve left me with.

I don’t suppose you’d like to pay my post-Hallows psychic laundry bill?





Conducted by Sean Moreland 

This interview with Jason Philip Wierzba accompanies PstD’s electronic publication of his previously unpublished short story “Down at the Celebrity Gap,” our inaugural new-fiction feature. Moving ahead, you can expect more of the retrospective author features and fiction reprints we’ve become known for (our next retrospectives will be with the groundbreaking American horror writer John Langan and Canadian futurist and stellar sci-fi writer Madeline Ashby ), but these will now alternate with new fiction and poetry features, also accompanied by author interviews and original illustrations.


Jason Philip Wierzba

Hi Jason, and thanks for agreeing to answer some questions for PstD’s readers. Can you begin by telling us about yourself, your background, your writing (fictional and otherwise)?

I was born and spent my youth in Calgary and environs. We moved to an acreage south of town when I was thirteen, and I spent a lot of time alone. I was constantly reading, watching movies, and listening to music. My parents both grew up poor on farms in rural Alberta. My dad became successful in the production end of the oil and natural gas racket and we were extremely well-off at a certain point. My mother was able to quit her job as a nurse.

I am an amalgam of elements Irish Catholic and Prussian, with some English and Scottish connections as well. I have always related most strongly to my paternal grandmother’s side of the family. The primarily Irish Catholic side. I physically resemble her people and was always pleased by our relation by blood to Frank and Jesse James. The whole story, really. The Dorans landed in New York as immigrants and made their way North over time, up through Missouri and then to the Canadian prairie. Lots of fortunes built and squandered on the railroad and so forth. A lot of drinking and gambling. Lots of honest-to-goodness cowboys. My personal journey as a writer goes way back. I was obsessively immersed in books from early childhood. I remember as a little boy being tremendously fond of Robin Cook’s medical thrillers.

The decisive moment came when I was thirteen, in 1993, and read an article in Details magazine about William Burroughs. It was all essentially downhill from there. I was turned on by the outlaw quality of his work and persona, the supremely transgressive element, the dark humour (I remember how much I loved the bit cited in that article about Doctor Benway performing an appendectomy with a rusty sardine can), and the apocalyptic horror of it all.

The avuncular W.S. Burroughs.

The avuncular W.S. Burroughs.

At this point I was progressing from listening to mainstream heavy metal to punk rock and indie guitar rock. Local punk bands were my heroes. And I wanted to make movies. When I was sixteen I wanted to make movies like Wim Wenders. Movies, especially, like Kings of the Road, Alice in the Cities, The State of Things, and Paris, Texas. There were movies I liked more than these movies, but these were the kinds of movies I wanted to make. Road movies. Bleak, slow-paced, druggy road movies. The critic Kent Jones wrote once about the foundational moment of any young baby boomer being the experience of listening to rock music and gazing stoned out of the window of a moving car. I was late to the party, but that was where I found myself in the mid-90s.

I went to university and quickly decided I wanted to write about film, not make films. And I continued to write fiction and poetry. I also continued to write and perform music. I wanted to do all of it, and I still sort of do. I write fitfully. I have started making music again, in an idiom different from those I pursued when I was younger and more dedicated to establishing an audience. I felt I needed to be exulted. I no longer feel this way. When I went to grad school at Carleton University to study film, my thesis to be advised by a professor named Chris Faulkner, whom I admired very much, a specialist in Jean Renoir and Popular Front-era French cinema, I was certain I was going to be an academic. An indentured scholar. However, I quickly realized I wanted no part of this. I figured I would rather work day jobs and write poems and stories. I was working on a novel. I never finished it. I have not decided one way or another if I have abandoned it. So I write. I have recently played live music for the first time in about six years.

I would call it free jazz if not for the fact that I don’t have the chops to claim that what I do is jazz. It’s free music. But if you call it free music, people may be under the mistaken impression that they don’t have to pay cover.

As for writing: I will never be in the business of selling this shit by the yard. I am generally waiting for it to happen instead of making it happen. One might aver that if a writer waits for the writing then the writing won’t happen at all. I have not found that to be true over the distances. You just can’t make a living this way. Which is okay. Don’t you find the idea of making a living writing kind of indecent? I have spent the last three years working frontline with the homeless. And reading. The problem with writing is, it cuts into the time one can spend reading.

“Down at the Celebrity Gap” isn’t the first piece of your fiction PstD has published. Your earlier story “Priority: Murder Kill” appeared in our hardcopy volume, PstD 3. Both stories feature some extremely unsettling images. To what extent would you say shocking or horrifying readers was your intention with them?

I absolutely wanted to shock people by virtue not only of the things I wrote, but by the way I lived. I was young. And I waited a long time to grow up. I was ensconced in ego and addiction. I was a holy monster and was somehow under the impression that it was sexy. Obviously it is when some people do it. I am no longer certain that I was sexy, and am certain I crossed the paths of many who would assert that I indeed was not. But I was never trying to be aggressive or confrontational with my writing. Not in an antagonistic way. I may have been doing that a lot with the way I lived and conducted myself, but in my writing, certainly after the age of nineteen or twenty, I was always trying to have fun, and to make it fun. The shocking stuff is always done playfully. I get a kick out of this stuff, a thrill, and I assume others do too. The culture at large is sufficiently full of salacious business for me to feel vindicated in this. Transgression is so central to anything interesting young people do. It doesn’t look quite so good on you after a certain age. Generally. Dennis Cooper pulls it off (although he has done so without forsaking having to grow up). And I can almost assure you that I am no longer in this business. “Down at the Celebrity Gap” was completed in 2008, I believe, and I was already living past my best before date as far as this shit is concerned. I still want to go far beyond conventional moral sense-making. I still want to pursue hard-won individual ethics far outside the norm, but I am more dedicated now to exposing things that are desperately raw and real, and to not so much engage in ironic games of cartoon shock and awe. Which is not to say that I wasn’t always trying to find legitimate things to express about what it is like to find oneself in this world.

Would you describe these stories as works of “horror?” Why (not)?

Well, if questions like this had not been addressed to me by others then it never would have occurred to me that I was writing anything other than good, old-fashioned, highfalutin literary fiction. But I have very much put myself in the position to be questioned about this. I think I entered the world in terror. I think during the early pubescent years it was all terror and hate. Then the hate started to go away and I bombarded the pleasure centres with substances and the stimulation resultant from wild behaviour so as to try and distract myself from the fact that I was still living totally and utterly in a state of full-on terror. That was my twenties. I guess the horror part of me was the part of me that was trying to make the terror communicable. But, of course, and probably more relevant per your question, is the fact that I have always been laterally engaging genre. It is clear to me that the two stories Postscripts to Darkness has been sweet enough to publish are postmodern works. And I believe they are primarily postmodern in terms of their self-reflexivity, their intertextuality, and their knowing invocation of genres and tropes. There is a connection to Coover and Barth. So I would say that these stories, instead of being representative works of “horror,” simply engage “horror” whilst at the same time gauging and engaging all sorts of other things. I would say that “Priority: Murder Kill” is especially involved in this engagement with “horror” because I put a ghost it there at the end. Or a zombie. Or just a resurrected dead guy. I am probably as slippery with my spectres as Willian T. Vollmann is in his recent and just totally wonderful collection Last Stories and Other Stories. A collection which contains works of horror. Sort of.


“Celebrity Gap” also bears a number of stylistic and thematic continuities with “Priority Murder Kill.” Can you talk about the relationship between these stories? Are they part of a larger story-cycle?

All the writing is connected. These stories are, admittedly, especially connected. They were written in the order they have been published. They are also connected to an even earlier story called “Your Ex-Wife Rita Hayworth,” which I am fairly certain is the story of mine that has been most often rejected by editors, and which I wrote when I was still in grad school. They could all be said to engage crime, madness, and the mythopoetics of celebrity to one extent or another. There are a number of crucial differences. “Your Ex-Wife Rita Hayworth” and “Priority: Murder Kill” are written in the first person and “Down at the Celebrity Gap” the third. When I started writing as a boy, very young, I wanted to write all my prose in first person because I could be extremely idiosyncratic and believed that there were no rules in first person. I always thought the omniscient narrator was for adults, and I ultimately didn’t believe I was competent enough to pull it off. So it could be said that the three stories suggest a maturation. But they don’t. Not really.

I think “Priority: Murder Kill” is extremely adult, if almost childish in its scandalous and shocking elements. What I wanted to do with that story was look at madness, criminal madness, serial killer madness, and suggest maybe it is not only not just madness after all, but that maybe it can be framed as being connected to a kind of tenderness. I felt that in order to do this I needed a first person narrator and I needed it to be a woman. It is a very phallic story and a very feminine one. It comes from a kind of confusion in myself. I used to get my drunk girlfriends to occasionally cut my hair into the famous bob of Louise Brooks, silent film actress, Kansas-bred ex-Ziegfeld girl, and my favourite human being after Jeanne d’Arc. I guess as a young man I believed with all my heart that the only thing worth aspiring to above making love to Louise Brooks would be to be Louise Brooks. Tenderness is intimacy. You can do intimacy so much better in the first person. What is more intimate than being privy to the secret business of another person’s consciousness?

Iconic screen star Louise Brooks,

Iconic screen star Louise Brooks.

I definitely wanted “Down at the Celebrity Gap” to be more dispassionate. I also wanted to use something like an omniscient narrator in a context where the reader really has no idea what has actually happened and what is madness, delusion, the interjection of dream. Also “Down at the Celebrity Gap” is definitely about masculinity and, though “Priority: Murder Kill” is not pretty, I believe its narrator to be infinitely more sympathetic than Andy from “Down at the Celebrity Gap.” Besides being frightened by the real possibility of mental collapse, I think that “Down at the Celebrity Gap” also reveals that I was afraid of becoming a really awful person who was convinced he was anything but. Also both “Priority: Murder Kill” and “Down at the Celebrity Gap” engage with serial killing, which has always fascinated me and, if I am going to be totally honest, delighted me, not that I am exactly proud of that. What is interesting about the indeterminacy of the apparently omniscient “Down at the Celebrity Gap” is that not even I am certain whether or not Andy has actually killed anyone. These stories are both kind of little gleefully amoral crime novels. I love crime novels. Even many of my poems are little crime novels. I think if you wanted to sum me up, during the period of my life represented by these stories, you could say I was trying to find this ideal sweet spot somewhere between James Joyce and James M. Cain.

You are far from alone in your fascination with serial killers; they are a pervasive aspect of our contemporary cultural imaginary. Any time I teach a course on horror fiction, I always include at least one serial killer-centric novel, and am always struck by the number of students who are already quite well-versed in not only the mythology, but also often the history and clinical assessments of high-profile serial killers. Any thoughts on why this fascination is so widespread?

It’s totally 100% a libidinal business. The mania for compulsive and decadent life-taking is mimetic of the compulsion to consume and fetishize these narratives. It’s a kink. We are turned on. It turns the killer on, it turns us on. And most people who compulsively devour the most sordid true crime stories will presumably steadfastly deny that they are turned on – they will describe these things as appalling. Those things are not mutually exclusive. Absolutely appalling things routinely turn us on. Exploitation films emerged as a way of promising people that movies with very small budgets were going to provide people with absolutely appalling spectacles that the folks with the real money were incapable of getting away with. That is what “exploitation” means in this context. Exploiting an untapped market niche. People pay money to see rape and murder. Generally it disappoints them. It’s poorly staged. Cheap. It is not their fantasy. So that’s what it is about: libidinal fantasy on a bedrock of shame. Fantasy needs shame. And when fantasy is enacted it is ghastly. In the serial killer context we are talking about a whole galaxy of trauma and very real suffering. This is why the guy who jerks off to extreme fantasies of sexual violence and sadism rarely has any interest in raping a real man or woman. It is an unspeakably horrible business. Such is fantasy. It’s a Lacanian thing. Slavoj Žižek wrote marvelously about Michael Haneke’s Elfriede Jelinek adaptation The Piano Teacher.ThePianoTeacher

He is correct about the fact that it might be the best film ever about what happens when a person with a wildly fucked-up fantasy life systematically enacts the fantasy and is absolutely stupefied by how unpleasant the results prove.

Where did this fascination start for you?

Puberty. All of a sudden I was thinking all the time about sex, suicide, murder, and apocalypse. Suicide most of all, actually. Suicide, of course, being the easiest way to commit apocalypse. But serial killing was an obsession.

Any literary or cinematic treatments of serial killers you think are particularly effective? Any that you find particularly poorly done or problematic?

James Ellroy’s Killer on the Road is simply one of the finest American novels. He is a well-loved and respected crime novelist but this book has been curiously absent from book shelves all my life. It is a staggering, truly masterful, unapologetic work of sickness and genius. Clearly an expertly-modulated purge. Genuinely one of my very favourite novels. When I was a teenager my best friend’s dad was a neuropsychiatrist. This man swore by Ellroy’s novel. Told us it was the only work that had done the phenomenon justice. He gave me his kind of tawdry-looking paperback copy, and I own it still. The narrator is both a psychopath and psychotic as well. They are two different things. The psychopathy manifests itself as is typical: no empathy, a clinical regard for the other, inflated self-regard, a certain deadness of affect. The psychosis manifests itself in the brain movies the narrator screens featuring his favourite comic book character, Shroud Shifter. Shroud Shifter is both the hero of his brain movies and the spectre that directs his homicidal actions. When my friend Marc and I were recording music between 1997 and 2000 we called our project Shroud Shifter.

And I love serial killer movies. There are two major standouts, neither often viewed nor discussed. The first is Donald Cammell’s White of the Eye.whiteoftheeyeposter

It is a truly revelatory work of art. It is almost completely not about the libidinal. It is about, amazingly, serial killing as the dark side of a kind of spirituality. I am reluctant to give too much away. We are used to the dark side of religion, not so much the dark side of spirituality. In this sense it is not just a tremendous work of art, but highly instructive for me personally. High up on my list of very favourite movies. The films Cammell never got to make, and the choices producers prevented him from enacting when he was trying to cut his films, are amongst our greatest lost-opportunities as a species. He subsequently shot himself in the head and lived for not much less than an hour afterwards, talking to his wife. She claims that he was beatific and felt no pain. The other serial killer film I would plug is Philippe Grandrieux’s Sombre. It is kind of almost a serial killer version of the kind of Wim Wenders movie I loved as a teen, but aggressively avant garde and suffused with Grand Guignol elements. And Grandrieux is a far, far better filmmaker than Wenders.SombrePoster

When I was a teen I had this idea about a really slow-burn serial killer movie set in Europe, on the road. Something like what Grandrieux did. The victims would all be women from indie rock. The screen goddesses of my imagination. Chan Marshall from Cat Power. Isobel Sollenberger from Bardo Pond. The killer would love these women, driving around with them in silence-filled long takes, and would glean absolutely no pleasure from killing them. I was pretty anhedonic that way. Only an addict could concoct such a story. It is also important to mention Buñuel’s The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, because it is brilliant, hilarious, and something of a much needed piss-take. It is the story of a prospective serial killer whose targeted victims keep dying by accident before he can kill them. It is an allegory about performance anxiety and sexual frustration, which, judging from his films, are things of which Buñuel had a pretty expert working knowledge.

As for problematic representations, one need look no further than American Psycho. It was a big deal when I was in high school, and I read it with glee. But it is garbage. It is McDonald’s literature; a part of the problem it purports to diagnose. The neuropsychiatrist who told me to read the Ellroy despised it. Even then I knew it was shit. As cultural critique it is a joke. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t tear through it. I enjoyed eating fast food as well, so there you go. The Mary Harron adaptation is pretty adorable though. The movie, at least, is in on the joke. And you can call Bret Easton Ellis an asshole, of course, but I am certain he doesn’t consider it a pejorative.


Ellis’s serial-satirico shocker – McDonald’s literature?

David Schmid prefaces his book Natural Born Celebrities by stating that “The existence of famous serial killers in contemporary American culture brings together two defining features of American modernity: stardom and violence. Not surprisingly, therefore, film is unique among popular cultural media in its potential to shed light on the reasons why we have celebrity serial killers because it is a medium defined by the representation of acts of violence and by the presence of stars.” What do you think of Schmid’s characterization of these connections?

First I outright reject the notion that violence or stardom are particularly American or modern, but will concede that the Americans have a pretty huge monopoly on how stardom and violence are packaged and understood now. In the golden age of exploitation cinema it was probably the Italians who were doing the best job of packaging sexual violence for movie theatre audiences. That stuff, like porn, was obviously salivating in wait of the advent of home video. I will also insist that the ideal movie about a serial killer for me personally would feature an actor in the lead that I had never seen anywhere else before, in any other role. It is hard to invest in fantasy when the artifice is being foregrounded by the presence of a goddamn movie star. Finally, and most importantly, actual serial killers only become cultural celebrities a posteriori. Whilst they are busy subtracting people from the population they have to go undetected, unidentified, unknown. Anonymity is the crux of the thing. They become celebrities only after they are caught. To become a celebrity serial killer you have to fail as a serial killer. There is, of course, the conventional wisdom that serial killers secretly want to be caught. I believe this is only true in the sense that all of us want to be caught, to be found out. Hiding things is exhausting and demoralizing.

There are also those who say that serial killers are artists. I have always thought that true artists were doing something noble. I want to make it perfectly clear: at no point, no matter how sick and twisted my fantasy life became, have I considered serial killers fucking noble. It is not a noble business. However, if you look at the Black Dahlia murder, for example, with the bisected body of Elizabeth Short posed the way it was, clearly the killer there was trying to do art. I am convinced from his investigation that Steve Hodel is right, that his father George Hodel was the Black Dahlia killer, and that George Hodel was directly paying homage to his personal friend Man Ray’s photograph “Minotaur.” There is also the Duchamp homage going on there. While this is titillating and fascinating, it is also pathetic, sad, and prurient.

Would you say one of the thematic links between “Priority: Murder Kill” and “Celebrity Gap” is an exploration of the connections between stardom and serial killing?

There are actual celebrities in “Your Ex-Wife Rita Hayworth” and “Down at the Celebrity Gap,” but they are not serial killers, or involved in serial killing. The narrator of “Priority: Murder Kill” is a sort of serial killer microcelebrity for the criminal cognoscenti. The real celebrities like Matt Damon and Rita Hayworth are para-psychotic figments. My belief is that if somebody is going to start hallucinating in the 21st century, it is not going to be long before they start hallucinating celebrities. And it is never long before the paranoid psychotic begins to believe that he or she is his or herself a celebrity. During my psychotic breaks I was convinced I was becoming a celebrity. Some people think the movie Birdman is garbage. I don’t, having suffered the indignity of myself living it. I take Birdman seriously. It is a reminder. It made me shudder. The ego is just as involved in psychosis as is the id, and the two can be hard to disentangle. The modern ego wants to believe in the possibility that it inhabits a celebrity or potential celebrity.

Can you tell our readers a little about the inspiration for “Down at the Celebrity Gap,” and the context in which you wrote the story?

“Down at the Celebrity Gap” was written in a very precise pocket. As far as I know, nothing else aside from perhaps a poem or two and fragments in notebooks exists from this period. It was written some time shortly after August of 2008. That summer I experienced the fist serious psychotic collapse of my life. That’s not hyperbole. This was a genuine, extremely harrowing psychotic event that went on for about a week. There had been two simultaneous music festivals in Calgary that summer, both extremely stimulating, which coincided with a bout of extreme mania, compounded by alcohol, cannabis, no sleep for a good haul, no food, and finally the combination of psilocybin mushrooms and heat stroke as all this crested in the intense heat at a day-long outdoor concert. The next couple days got progressively very bad. I believed a guerilla dance troupe had moved into my condo. People seemed to always be around and then suddenly not there. The dance troupe and I were in possession of a drug that could make us decompose before each others’ eyes before suddenly we could re-enfleshen at will. I believed that a giant insurrection of a festival had taken over my city and that I was at the centre of it. Eventually I thought the TV was watching me and fled my building. If I had not fled my building I would have very much died in my condo; really, actually died. I was running through the city. Airplanes and buildings were coming down. The military and the media were on my trail. I would brush the ground with my hand and Sanskrit text would be revealed. It was a horrifying nightmare that ended with me naked, covered in mud in somebody’s backyard, my organs shutting down. Amusingly, I suppose, I remember that I was naked because I believed that since I was invisible it would be unseemly for people to witness clothes with nobody in them moving frantically about. I was in the hospital for quite some time before I became lucid. Even after my faculties returned it took me longer still to accept that all the stuff that had happened had not in fact happened. It was my first, but not my last, experience of a total psychotic break and it obviously left an impression. After I was out of the hospital, my mother took me away to a retreat near Taos, New Mexico. She goes to these groups there. We spent a week meditating and screaming and bashing pillows and crying hysterically, a bunch of parents and their adult children in a circle. I learned to locate myself in my body and began to locate myself in the terror I had been quasi-unconsciously inhabiting my entire life. I would localize this terror in my tailbone and perineum. At night I would sneak down into the arroyo after everybody had gone to sleep to smoke my one cigarette of the day, the only drug I partook in that week, aside from the neutered tea we drank. The image of Julia Roberts smoking a cigarette in an arroyo in “Down at the Celebrity Gap” might be the story’s most directly autobiographical touch. I always identified with starlets and divas. I was still a musician and performer back then and would always tell everybody I wanted to be Beyoncé, even though I was clearly trying to do this ironic Charley Patton thing. I wrote the story very quickly upon returning to Calgary from New Mexico. Atypically quickly. It poured out and felt great to write. I wanted to do something combining psychosis and New Mexico. “Down at the Celebrity Gap” is psychosis and New Mexico. I was drinking again when I wrote it. I would continue down an unspeakably awful road until eventually starting to work at getting sober and dealing with mental illness in earnest in 2009.

You’ve said that “Celebrity Gap” was written during a period of drinking following a period of sobriety. The relationship between substance dependency and literary production has been a complex (and often eventually fatal) one for more writers than I can name. How do you experience this relationship, personally?

“Down at the Celebrity Gap” very much did not follow a period of sobriety. Let me make that very clear. It followed a period of abstention from alcohol and mood altering drugs. There is a major difference. I am sober now. Genuine sobriety requires a serious and fairly particular kind of psychospiritual upheaval, and you need to be guided there. At least I needed to be guided there. And there were missteps, believe you me. There were a lot of drugs in my life, all the available ones at one time or another, but the predominant ones were alcohol and cannabis. For at least a decade I was pretty much always under the influence of alcohol and cannabis. It was my operational condition. I was rewarded by the ability to sit at my computer for long periods of time when I was using alcohol and cannabis. It suppressed restlessness. I could write, and write very well generally, for thirteen hour stretches, which is also, incidentally, about how long I could drive at a stretch when on road trips. The interesting thing about writing on alcohol was that I wouldn’t get conventionally drunk. I would get exhilarated and zoned-in. I got through university with highest honours and I did so writing papers on my laptop, sitting cross-legged on the hardwood floor actually, surrounded by source texts, drinking bourbon, and smoking weed and cigarettes, for thirteen hour stretches. I don’t write like that anymore. I can only manage a couple hours here and there. I am easily exhausted and am acutely conscious of when I am doing harm to myself. My brain works with words. I can’t see images when I close my eyes. There are only invisible words in there. Unless I am dreaming. Mood altering drugs loosened the words. They came in torrents. But I always edited carefully as I went along. I was never a reckless writer in terms of the basic application of craft. When I got drunk and high and opened my mouth, however, I couldn’t slow down. I seriously alienated people. Those who knew me then would be flabbergasted to hear that people consider me quiet and thoughtful now. Though I can be Puckish. 

How has your commitment to sobriety changed how you write, how you read?

Before I identify as an artist, or even as a man, I identify as a recovering alcoholic. Recovery is above all else a spiritual process. Addiction is a disease, this is agreed upon by everybody excluding uninformed idiots, and diseases have bizarre, complex symptomatologies. For example, I once read that people who suffer from ALS are almost uniformly kind, generous people. Addicts are almost uniformly selfish, self-obsessed people who never felt like they belonged in this world. We feel totally exceptional and special but also, paradoxically, totally worthless. We are driven by fear, shame, resentment, and self-pity. It is not our fault. It is a condition in which the sick person is totally and utterly disconnected. That is why the only solution is psychospiritual. They may eventually find medication that helps, but only if that medication is conducive to a psychospiritual upheaval.

Studies now confirm that people are not drawn into addiction by chemical hooks in the drugs themselves. Many people use drugs, often heavily, and never become addicts. The addict is a disconnected person who finds in chemicals a temporary way of feeling connected. A lot of people think the problem is sociological. People in miserable conditions turn to drugs. That is a factor. Many addicts – we make up about ten percent of the population – never activate the addiction by using, because they are basically satisfied by their perhaps-not-entirely-satisfactory situation or just never stumble upon drugs. You are never going to provide ideal living conditions for all addicts so that they can get well. The world is not exactly heading in the direction of better living conditions for everyone. And plenty of people who live in seemingly ideal conditions are hopelessly addicted. So you need to get connected psychospiritually. That’s all that spirituality is: connection. Connection to yourself, to others, and to the whole fucking show. You need acceptance, you need some hope followed by faith, and you need, in my experience, a hell of a lot of curiosity and wonder. And you need to be able to be moved by suffering. You need to become empathetic. When I am opening a book now, or putting words on paper, I want to tap into the spiritual, and I want things that are profound and moving and connect me. I work with the homeless. It is service work. It has hardened me. It has increased my empathy but decreased my ability to feel pity for myself or others. I don’t fucking feel sorry for anybody. But I am deeply moved by what people endure.

The book that has most changed my life in recovery, and the way I want to write, is Coma by Pierre Guyotat. It is one of these two autobiographical books he has written this century that have been published in English by Semiotext(e).ComaGuyotat

In the Deep is the other one, and because of its literary pyrotechnics, its sexual candour, and its obvious philosophical heft it is likely to have more staying power. But it is not nearly as important to me as is Coma. Coma is essentially about proximity to God to the point of total exhaustion and possible annihilation. It is the hard truth about the real stakes of being a spiritual animal, and is monumentally instructive. It is about life lived by the artist with perilous intensity. Not drinking and drugging. Not doing intense things. Just being intensely. Sitting still in the most intense way possible. This is about Guyotat living himself into a coma in early middle age. Just ending up in a coma by virtue of existing the way he existed. This book defines everything for me now the way Bataille’s Blue of Noon defined everything for me in my early twenties. As for my writing: I am sitting on it. It is percolating. I feel like I owe it to myself and a handful of others to write something totally naked and true about what it is like to spin out of control and then pull it back together. A novel. Almost certainly.

Does the fact that you wrote “Celebrity Gap” while drinking change your perception of the story, now?

I feel no shame about being an alcoholic. It is totally hateful and stupid when people demonize those who in active addiction keep trying to do the only thing that ever made them feel okay long after it has tragically stopped making them feel okay. I wrote some things that were no good when I was drunk. I write some things that are no good when I am sober. I wouldn’t be letting you share such things with your readership.

You are an avid film-viewer with an academic background in film studies, and have maintained a fascinating film review site over the past few years. Can you talk about how your fascination for film feeds into your fiction? About how you perceive the relationship between writing on/about film and writing fiction?

I am, above all, a voracious consumer of culture. My appetite is inexhaustible. Let me break it down. I recently described it this way to a close friend: music is my water, literature is my food, and the cinema is my house of worship. It should be added that philosophy is also important, but that I see it very much as a pretty-rarefied sub-category of literature. And cinema really very much deserves a place of exulted privilege. I cannot do anything with my writing that is anything like what the best cinema can do. I honestly believe that the filmmaker Robert Bresson is the greatest artist in the history of our species and I am totally convinced that I will believe this until I die. He is the greatest impressionist there ever was, true heir to Cézanne, whom he utterly surpassed. What is so special about the cinema is that it works with images, sound, and time. The true art of cinema often happens in the cutting room, or before that, in the space between the minds of the people making the film when they put the thing together between those minds. It is ultimately about form and tone. And about beauty.

Cinema also is a collaborative art and speaks to my conviction (raised by the academy to be a proper post-structuralist and having studied and fully been taken by Foucault’s “What is an Author?”) that every work of art is something that is basically by all of us and for all of us. This is not merely historical materialism, it is deeply spiritual. I believe deeply in the God of Spinoza (especially as filtered by Deleuze), and I believe that everything that happens, happens within a plural unity. That is my sense of what impressionism is: us rendering from within the All. This is radical contingency. Everything that happens in this world is produced by a wildly complicated confluence of forces far greater than any individual. Another thing about cinema studies is that in the 70s and 80s the whole discipline became kind of wonderfully hijacked by psychoanalytic theory. People always want to compare cinema to dreams. Cinema is not dreams. Dreams are always morphing, and slippery, and totally fucked up. A dream is a dream and there will never be anything else like a dream.

What the cinema and dream have in common is the auditory and visual components, obviously, but also that they both represent what Freud calls the “other scene.” They are worlds like our world, except excitingly contained and off to the side. Not off to the side. Through a magic fucking portal. I have nothing to write about music or other writers. Not that I can think of. I will never have exhausted things that I can write about cinema. I am truly reverential towards the cinema. Though I need literature more just for the purposes of survival. I will go totally mad without books. And the intimacy of being invited into a consciousness other than your own. With cinema you stand outside looking and listening. With literature you merge, which is insanely erotic and totally perilous, just like falling in love (especially if you have codependency issues as do I). The other thing you probably notice about “Priority: Murder Kill” and “Down at the Celebrity Gap” is that they owe a great deal to exploitation films and the cinema of transgression. In my twenties I was not interested in doing literature without doing amorality. Obviously a lot of people go to the movies because no-holds-barred amorality is wonderful and thrilling when contained within the “other scene.”

Your reference to the God of Spinoza reminds me of something you wrote on Cowberry Filmflam a few months ago“The confluence of forces, not a deity, I shall henceforth, as a Spinozist, refer to as God, gave all of this to me. I earned nothing. I was owed nothing. The gift I have received (the primary evidence of which was the cessation in November of 2013, inexplicable and unexpected, of the baffling compulsion to fend off the present-at-hand by drinking myself to death (or whatever-the-fuck-else it took)), was a senseless and perfect gift that has left me here with hope and faith, concepts to which I had hitherto paid only lip service.”

You are, I think, the only writer I’ve ever interviewed who professes the God of Spinoza as their higher power, in the sense of (and I realize the term is probably ill-suited here, as we are talking about a “confluence of forces, not a deity”) personal saviour. How did this radical perspectival shift occur?

I have been saved, but not by a God who is something like an entity that has something like a brain or something like a nervous system. I love very much Spinoza’s critique, very brave, of Aristotle’s concept of “final causation.” The critique assures us that ultimate causes do not originate in some kind of entity who desires things to play out to his or her specifications. But things play out the way they must, according to God. And God saved me. I never knew it, but the whole radically contingent cosmic apparatus was set in motion from the very beginning, though there is no beginning or end, in such a way that I would find myself saved. I like the word God. I was a rabid atheist, and it pleases me to no end to speak of God now. It’s been building for awhile. When I was a kid I identified with people who saw God in all things. Then I encountered the music of singer-songwriter Will Oldham, who became one of my heroes around the time I could drive. He sings about God, and when he sings about God he is basically singing about the same God Spinoza was offering up.

Will Oldham - click on the image to read a fascinating interview in which Oldham talks about, among other things, his relationship to God and Bob Dylan.

Will Oldham – click on the image to read a fascinating interview in which Oldham talks about, among other things, his relationship to God …and Bob Dylan.

However, when I speak of God I could obviously just use one of Deleuze’s terms, which is “the One-Many.” And as far as this invocation of a confluence of forces is concerned, that comes less from Spinoza, but rather from Nietzsche’s ontology of force, again as filtered by Deleuze. As far as the philosophers that Deleuze happily enters from the rear, according to his provocative assessment, I also need to mention Bergson. Bergsonian ontology is also important, but I am more interested in the epistemological register. In Bergson we find that humans have a pretty distorted relationship with reality by virtue of our being woefully limited creatures. Einstein and Alfred Jarry are equally indebted to Bergson. 

(How) have your experiences over the last few years changed how you read Spinoza? Deleuze?

They haven’t. I just live it better.

Your reference to Deleuze, above, reminds me of his statement (in The Logic of Sense) that “everything that can be attained by chemical means is accessible by other paths.” What does this mean to you?

He also invokes Henry Miller’s assertion that it should be possible to get drunk on plain, good old water. He is totally right. Even when I was using I knew it was possible to do all this stuff the hard way, with discipline and effort. I am a writer. The favourite of the seven deadly sins for any good writer, as Thomas Pynchon once averred, is sloth. I wanted to take the easy road. So shoot me. Now I am not sure I want to get drunk at all. Not even on water. Okay, I am being a little disingenuous, but I dedicated my whole youth to Dionysus, and you know what? I think I now see the appeal of fat Buddha perched on his ass, all the cosmos going through him like a river. Which is not to say that I am not still sick. I should really have yellow Post-it notes everywhere reminding me: “Jason, you are still sick.”

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“Down at the Celebrity Gap” by Jason Philip Wierzba

  1. Andy

Andy had to go pick Elizabeth up from school halfway through the day, turning off the 2:00 weepie on the new plasma and letting the dog kvetch in its way. The dog wanted to go for a car ride. A ‘c-a-r-r-i-d-e’ as his June Bug had recently gotten the damn kids chanting as well, now, whenever they were going somewhere, though they were fooling no one, least of all Buster. Hoisting the little fellow (that goddamn d-o-g) humanely aside with his foot as it tried to proactively pin the loafers in the corner of the nook next to the screen door, hungry for attention, Andy exited the Deck House he’d handbuilt over the eleven preceding summers, damn near in condemnable shape already as it was, and proceeded to take the weatherworn red Honda to go get little Lizzy.

I am Andy, he said to himself, driving past the scenic lookout. I am a gentle creature. Deep breaths, he reminded himself out loud. The man on the radio spoke about the Grand Opening of The Celebrity Gap. Andy breathed deeply into his diaphragm and held it there, one breath then another, and so forth, a little dizzy, ignoring the man on the radio, until he was parked in the Joyce Nübklinker School for Gifted Girls lot, not a lick less nervous for all the yogic breathing nonsense, nor a smidgen removed from a particularly nasty case of what June Bug would no doubt have called the ‘grumpies.’

Fuck breathing.

He popped some Pepto B chewables sitting loose in the cup holder and decamped for the front office with one of his shoes untied, sockless in his indigo bathrobe, tiny French swimming trunks underneath.

  1. Elizabeth

All he knew was that something had happened between Elizabeth and the Chemistry Teacher, another altercation of some kind. Frankly, Andy couldn’t blame the kid. He’d met Mr. Ivor at parent-teacher interview night, the only one he’d ever yet had to attend, being as he had been in the shithouse that week as far as June Bug was concerned, no excuses this time. Andy didn’t have to talk to the guy more than five seconds before he wanted to sock Mr. Ivor one himself.

Walking back out to the car twenty minutes later, and still straining to locate himself with his nervous system, Andy looked down at his daughter, suddenly realizing that she was clutching a number of his deathly fingers with her pudgy fist. Though little Liz clearly had been crying – most of her face splotched red like a rash with the evidence – at this particular moment she was looking like she might kinda be … no, in fact she was indeed actually laughing, now, even her eyes joining in.

– What is it kiddo? What’s so funny, hunh?

– Oh, Andy …

– Call me daddy, please, sweetheart.

– I am so proud of you, daddy. You were so wonderful in there. I tell you Andy … if you were forty years younger … (!) … when you called him Strangefinger I nearly pissed my Strawberry Shortcakes.

Shocked at not having been chastened, as would be customary, for her full-frontal effrontery, Elizabeth spun around to see her father standing motionless a few paces behind where she’d inadvertently left him at ‘wonderful in there.’ Little Lizzy could see that he was muttering to himself.

–Wo, daddy! she exclaimed, ahead of herself. Then: what’s that you’re saying, daddy?

She ran back to him, nearly tripping up on those ballerina slippers she never took off, having no way of knowing that her words had stopped him cold as a petrified redwood not because of their brazen invocation of some seriously insidious taboo shit. After all it was typical of the girl, wasn’t it? She was kind of bratty, only performing like this in public places with nosy strangers around to stare disapprovingly. It never surprised Andy who once read a book by Doctor Spock. Children crave attention and will do pretty much anything to go about getting it. That’s about the size of it. A couple more synapses fired back up like the old oil tank at the old family farm. Thinking about the place made Andy want to go back there and have an Orangeade watching it burn to moldering toothpicks.

– You’re a real pisscutter, daddy. What’s gotten into you? approaching closer. Hey! DADDY! Elizabeth shook her father’s sleeve in a frustration of inarticulable need. Inarticulable even if the little whippersnapper is a genius, some science and dance protégé of the highest supposed order, squealing in high-pitched multi-climaxes of divine right.

Elizabeth, even had she not been sounding the high alarms, would never have been able to hear her father muttering: I am Andy. I am a soldier for me. I am Andy. I am a soldier for me. I am a gentle creature.

  1. Bug Bug

When he opened the back door of the Honda to throw Elizabeth’s Yo-Yo Ma knapsack in with the fast food wrappers and old newspapers, Andy did not expect to see the teenager in there with that strange anorexic girlfriend of his. Wazzername.

– Jesus, kid. What the … how did you …(?)…

– Dad. You OK?

– I …

– You are giving us that lift, remember? said the wazzername coldly, not even bothering to lift her eyes from her BlackBerry.

– Bug Bug! said Elizabeth, seeing her fraternal counterpart, running up and trying to wrap arms around his scrawny shoulders through the open window like a midget vaudevillean.

The foursome (actually a fivesome – somehow the dog had gotten in despite the Deck House chastening) drove for boysenberry Ice Cream. Andy could not remember who had requested the Ice Cream but was sure that some sort of instant consensus had been reached. He was right now now fully committed to remembering where each of the nearby Ice Cream parlors was located, the distance between himself and the various establishments, the relative quality of each menu, the basic equation. Normally he would have had the daughter figure it all out with her wireless connection and Texas Instruments, but she appeared to be in no mood to shut up at that particular moment. It struck Andy now that she probably had the opportunity to sneak a couple cups of coffee whilst waiting outside the principle’s office in her cone of silence. June Bug had told him: no more coffee for the kid. Andy forgets.

Ethics are instant-to-instant and microscopic.

It was June Bug’s own money that she accused him of stashing in his sock drawer. June Bug forgets too.

– Neurosis is a dysfunction of the active faculty of forgetting, says the kid, as though possessed of some kind of daddy radar. Redeyed Bug Bug looking stoned and bugeyed and his saucy wazzername in the backseat making dirty needle tattoos. Dirty needle piercings. Or was the rearview tricking him, he wondered over his shoulder, edging in vain toward the blindspot revelation that wouldn’t comply, his vision presently growing blurry.

It was not the rearview. He was certain.

Couldn’t quite see. Keep your eyes on the road, Andy.

“Or was the rearview tricking him, he wondered over his shoulder, edging in vain toward the blindspot revelation that wouldn’t comply…” Illustration by Sebyth.

  1. June Bug

Andy was telling himself he was a soldier for himself. He was doing it over and over, a gentle creature. Preoccupied as he was, it was of course Elizabeth who first noticed that they were being followed by his wife or whatever she was now. It was, of course, June Bug and the notorious newsman, her new beau, who brought along with him a documentary camera crew and some busybody libertines with clipboards. It was a large van. Andy, alerted to its presence, noted the largeness of the van, cataloguing its human cargo, fingering the abacus of his instincts, palms growing sweaty on the wheel, the vehicle in high gear. Andy heard police helicopters.

– Oh Daddy, said Elizabeth, disappointed. The teenagers pierced each others’ noses, to all appearances indifferent.

  1. Euphrates

Andy did not know how he escaped his pursuers, only that he had been forced to jettison his two children and the dog at Hannigan’s Ice Cream Parlor to fend for themselves. He realized as he did it that it had finally come to him sacrificing his children to his wife and her hangers-on in the State Legislature. Bug Bug’s solemn girlfriend was still in the back of the Honda, not being of any value as a potential sacrifice to June Bug. The girl was attending to the bullet wounds sustained by the hitchhiker Andy could not remember picking up. The girl referred to him as their ‘first hostage,’ and the pathetic state of the fellow clearly brought out her mothering side. Andy himself had been grazed by a bullet, though he was not yet aware that this was the case.

He parked the car and the dead man in the shop at the girl’s parents’ rural getaway, where he discovered amongst the half-disassembled detritus with which her father casually tinkered, that the maudlin young vixen who thrilled in crudely tattooing squiggly skater death’s-heads on his son’s biceps with a dirty needle went by the name of Euphrades. Andy entreated Euphrades to assist him in emptying the bullet-riddled car of its more dangerous glass shards and to help cover up the conspicuous blood stains from the dead hitchhiker or whatever he was who was now resting in a horse trough in the corner with his blue tongue hanging out.

As they stepped out of the shop into the harsh sunlight, Andy became aware of the bullet burn on his neck and became somewhat delirious. Images flooded his mind. Images of the mangled bodies stowed beneath the Deck House. The eleven years worth of bodies, the length of his divorce. The length of his project. Images of the dead principle, Mr. Ivor the Chemistry Teacher’s head breaking apart with the last blow, Elizabeth waiting in the hall where he had had the sense, though on autopilot as he was just then, to lead her to await his return before revisiting the office himself to resettle their hash for good.

Stumbling around outside the shop in this delirium he set off an animal trap with his pantleg and did a funny jig of incomprehension before falling unconscious to the earth. He came to, gauzed and numb, in a most pleasant solarium with Euphrades attending to the minor wound on his neck. Leaning over him she exposed a lingering flash of her most supple and enticing breast. She has a silver salamander on the chain around her neck. Andy reminded himself that he was a soldier for himself, a gentle creature. He allowed it as the girl began slowly massaging his manhood until he was as stiff as a shower rod to the touch. She giggled nervously, then, and unleashed his purpling member as though shocked to find it suddenly there in her skeletal hand – as though her encountering it in the first had been but an act of nervous automatism – and retreated to the kitchen where she explained that she had made them Virgin Daiquiris in a blender with some fruit juice and her father’s hidden stash of crushed ice.

– Tell me Andy, pleaded the frail teenager handing him his drink, why am I so drawn to you? Why do I use your son to get close to you?

Andy paused thoughtfully before he spoke:

– I am a soldier in a deep forbidding jungle, he began. But I am a gentle creature. My wife doesn’t understand me. June Bug. She is in her defiance, you understand. She won’t listen to herself, has no perineum, won’t open up. It is true that I am difficult. I warned her of that on the carousel on our first date. I bought her The Dead Zone by Stephen King. She regurgitated a corn dog on my khakis and you can’t get that out of khaki. Like when you fart but there’s some shit. You just cannot get that out of khaki. I can’t. And my wife – June Bug – she just doesn’t understand. I knew it was over. She quit doing the laundry. Took up with a kindly priest, subsequently defrocked. We did a couple’s group in Florence but only she spoke Italian and I could tell everybody was laughing at me. I made a great big stink and had to hide at the American Embassy in Rome. I have done many things of which I am not proud. I don’t want to bring you into this Euphrades. You deserve to soar like a pterodactyl, flying with those disturbing fingers curled up beneath you. You really should try to eat some food. Look at you, Euphrades, nothing but skin and bone. You are very special to me and I am dangerous. This is what draws us like moths, you know. We are drawn to something unspoken, sublime as the gaping heavens, capable of explosive fission.

– Oh Andy, said the girl, swooning.

They made love in a fortress of frilly pink pillows, he holding her like a precious pocket watch inherited from a favorite uncle. As he mounted the teenager, youth returned to Andy like a pestilence. Euphrades was truly pliant, if a little circumspect, as her too-eager humping gave way to an arousing lifelessness. She got up and disappeared to the bathroom. Having quickly pulled the French swimming trunks over his exposed shame, Andy flung the bathrobe like an indigo prayer shawl over his paunchy frame and spoke to his beloved, whom he could no longer see, over the sound of running bathwater.

– To me you are a reassurance of Spring in deepest Winter as with an old Chinese haiku read against the gray light of a yielding glacier. You are the very brail of my newfound touch. I touch you to awaken the most sacred languages of our forefathers, imprinted there upon the snowwhite of you with the magma of our earth’s core as it pulses with hunger for what you conceal …

Andy thought he heard Euphrades say that that was nice and call him dear. The bathwater made it hard to hear.

Andy continued in his romantic musing:

– June Bug, bless her litigious heart, never understood. She was not a soldier for herself. She was mean for no reason …

The bathwater stopped running. Just then a man came out of the bathroom covered in blood. It was Andy. Andy looked confused.

  1. Matt Damon

The bathwater was maroon and Euphrades was not responding to his hostile caresses. Panic!

Andy ran to the barn. He stole an Arabian colt and fine English saddle. He stole some fine leather straps from Argentina. Almost weeping, he rode towards town, leaping the white picket fences, the bloody bandage now dangling from his injured neck.

There was a major fracas in the center of the small New Mexican city in which Andy and the colt presently found themselves.

He approached the milling crowds astride the handsome beast, thirsty for water and whatever contact high he might find amidst his people.

The largest mass of gawkers seemed to be gathering outside a large anachronistic building that looked something like an old Western saloon. The building had a vaguely irreligious quality to it. Stepping off his horse, Andy slowly approached the teaming mob, which quickly parted for him, a commotion now rising up above the general din.

– It’s that Andy character, he heard somebody say.

An old lady with rickets swatted at him with a half-deployed umbrella.

– Some nerve, showing up for the Grand Opening.

– And in broad daylight, too.

Somebody was alerting the police on their mobile. Andy didn’t care. He could not take his eyes off the huge banner which awed him. It was not, in fact, a banner, he noticed, but rather a giant mayoral sash, Crown Royal purple, that wrapped around the entire building.


In the display case windows were large portraits of celebrities wearing Gap clothing. Julia Roberts was sneaking a cigarette down in the arroyo. She was sporting some fetching Banana Republic number. The Olsen Twins in a provocative Adam and Eve tableau. Truman Capote in a smart sweater vest. The biggest portrait of all featured Matt Damon in aviator goggles, his jowly face comically stretched back by G-Force.

As a cavalcade of police cars arrived upon the scene, Andy entered the commercial palace, tears in his eyes. At first the lights from the documentary film crew blinded him, but slowly the scene integrated before him. In the center of the room, amidst the rows of sensible and inexpensive clothing hung or neatly folded by collegiate failures, sat his darling little Lizzy with a half-eaten waffle cone, the genius, on Matt Damon’s lap like he were Santa Clause, June Bug and the new beau next to them, beaming before the cameras, the son pouting alone way over by the cash, a primarily Hispanic film crew.

– Oh Daddy, said Elizabeth, as though embarrassed to be caught in this awkward moment of celebrity worship. I would have seen it on TV anyway, thought Andy. Eventually. Some genius she is.

Andy wanted to strike somebody but held it in. He held it in his perineum.

There followed a silence which seemed to last an eternity. Finally Matt Damon spoke, breaking the ice:

– I cannot say you surprise us Andy, began the beatific movie star. I suppose we knew deep down that you had to make an appearance. I must say you have held us all in suspense, wondering what you might think of next you crazy bugger you. But I am drawn to you Andy. We are drawn to you. We are all drawn to you. Your story has captivated millions. The world hungers after you. Andy. Our earth’s very core pulses with hunger for you. For what you conceal. The … project. Look at your wife. See how she blushes so sincerely to see you here this moment. She loves you Andy, your June Bug. Sure she does. She can’t hide it, Andy, and hiding is what she does. See how she loves you. See?

Andy stood weeping as his one true love approached him, also weeping, a humbleness about her. They embraced.

– That’s it Andy, that’s it, said Matt Damon, much satisfaction writ upon his brow. The cameras circling, ever closer, the resurrected couple. The first canister of tear gas spiralling through the saloon door.

Jason Philip Wierzba is a writer and occasional musician from the Canadian prairie. He has a Master’s Degree in Film Studies from Carleton University. His previous story “Priority: Murder Kill” was published in Postscripts to Darkness Volume 3 and ten of his poems have been published online by Ditch. He is currently working frontline with the homeless in Calgary.

This story is accompanied by an extensive interview conducted by Sean Moreland which you can read here.

Sebyth exists. Probably. @Sebyth.

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Poe Vs. Lovecraft Panel at FanExpo Toronto 2015

This t-shirt design from TeeCraze rather captures the spirit of the Thing, don't you think?

This t-shirt design from TeeCraze rather captures the spirit of the Thing, don’t you think?

Sean Moreland will be joining influential Canadian writers/editors/anthologists Nancy Kilpatrick and Caro Soles on a panel at this year’s FanExpo Canada to talk about the relative scary-merits of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft (the panel may also be joined by a special guest, known for his screen embodiment of both writers’ fictions.)  It’ll be a feast of insidious intent, hideous argument, and debatable putridities as we discuss the legacy and influence of these two titans of terror, considering who is finally more frightening, and why….

The panel is scheduled to take place on Saturday September 5 at 545. I’ll post any changes or details here. If you are at this year’s expo, we hope to see you there!

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I spent last weekend down in the lovely Providence, RI, for the 2015 edition of NecronomiCon, a festival that celebrates the legacy and achievement of H.P. Lovecraft, as well as the broader field of the weird in literature, art, and popular culture.

I first learned of Lovecraft when I was probably about 10, by reading this Lovecraft homage aimed at young adults.

I first learned of Lovecraft when I was probably about 10, by reading this Lovecraft homage aimed at young adults.

Having been an avid reader of Lovecraft since the age of 11, I first went to the Con in 2013 in a purely recreational capacity, enjoyed it immensely, and found that it renewed my interest in researching and writing critically on Lovecraft and his legacy (the forthcoming collections I’m editing, The Lovecraftian Poe and The Call of Cosmic Panic, not to mention my return to Lovecraft via the interest he and Poe shared in materialist/atomist philosophy, all came about in part because of the impetus NecronomiCon 2013 provided.)

I first read Lovecraft in this 1974 edition, a dog-eared copy of which lurked in the local public library

I first read Lovecraft in this 1974 edition, a dog-eared copy of which lurked in the local public library.

This year, I attended as part of the Armitage Symposium, a series of academic panels and talks co-organized by Niels Hobbs and Dennis Quinn. I participated specifically in a panel on the importance of ancient Rome and Roman writers for Lovecraft, drawing on a book-length study I’m slowly working on (tentatively titled Repulsive Influences) that charts the vestiges and influence of 1st century BCE Roman poet Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura in/on Poe and Lovecraft. and through them, contemporary cosmic horror.

NecronomiCon 2015 was both fun and thought-provoking; it is, in many ways, a unique and wonderful convention, and this year’s was more ambitious and multi-faceted than its 2013 iteration had been. It was also much more unsettling.


If you don’t know anything about the Con, it straddles the boundaries between pop-culture fandom and academic conference. It features gaming, cosplay, a bizarre bazaar offering everything from Cthulhu plushies to rare and first-edition books to contemporary weird and horror fiction titles (by indie and major publishers) and films, to on-site film screenings, podcasts, live theatrical performances, and….well, you get the idea.

It is, on the one hand, an unprecedented celebration of a single writer’s massive popular-cultural legacy (even Lovecraft’s beloved “God of Fiction” Poe, or his contemporary popular descendent Stephen King, doesn’t have anything comparable). On the other, it also strives to be a locus of weird/horror fiction more broadly, showcasing the work of many subsequent creators who work in Lovecraft’s shadow, or with the materials he helped shape into their modern forms.

These contradictions are part of what make the convention so singular, and so engaging. They are also, of course, what make it so profoundly problematic. Consider my phrasing, above, about contemporary creators of the weird working “in Lovecraft’s shadow,” and you may already get a sense of part of the problem, as Nnedi Okorafor famously did when she won the World Fantasy Award a few years back.


Knowing I was at the Con, a friend shared a link to this Atlantic Monthly article about Lovecraft’s popular resurgence, and its relation to his more troubling social, and especially racial, views. The article’s aptness was highlighted for me by a number of things that happened at the Con.

On the one hand, there was a lot more open, critical dialogue about this aspect of Lovecraft’s writing and legacy than at the previous NecronomiCon, including a well-selected and attended panel on Lovecraft and racism. I didn’t make it to that one in person, but have watched it since – you can view it here.

Lovecraft’s xenophobic and racial views are hard to overlook (I would say impossible, if so many of his readers, imitators, and commentators had not tried, with varying degrees of success, to overlook them for so many decades), and this makes his celebrated status as a literary and pop-cult icon especially problematic.

These views are hardly incidental to Lovecraft’s writing, fiction or otherwise. In terms of his fictions, his anxious racial attitudes pervasively inflect his tales, becoming most overt in stories written during his time in New York city, including the spasmodic, gibbering tirades against urban ethnic hybridity which are “He” and “The Horror at Red Hook.” But they hardly disappear from the later fiction; like the invective that peppers his letters, they just become more understated once he returns to the relative ethnic and linguistic homogeneity of Providence.

In terms of his critical writings, Lovecraft even tended to assimilate weird fiction to his own racial typography, associating different strains of it with different aspects of his racial imaginary. In one example, from the first chapter of Supernatural Horror in Literature, he claimed that:

“In the Orient, the weird tale tended to assume a gorgeous colouring and sprightliness which almost transmuted it into sheer phantasy. In the West, where the mystical Teuton had come down from his black Boreal forests and the Celt remembered strange sacrifices in Druidic groves, it assumed a terribly intensity and convincing seriousness of atmosphere which doubled the force of its half-hinted horror.”

Virtually every aspect of Lovecraft’s thought and writing is in some way coloured by his ideas about race and the relationship between genetics and culture, from his affectionate writings about cats to his readings of philosophical and historical works. As my ancient Rome co-panelists Dennis Quinn and Byron Nakamura both aptly stated during the panel on Lovecraft and ancient Rome, even Lovecraft’s identification with Roman writers is inflected by a tendency to align his contemporary white-Anglo-Saxon-Atheistical-Protestantism with both 18th century England and Republican Rome (an identification that echoes that made by Edward Gibbon and other 18th century British writers.)

Are these racial views ostensibly the reason most contemporary readers/writers are fascinated with Lovecraft’s stories? Of course not.  One of the participants on the panel, Mexican-born Canadian author, editor and publisher Silvia Moreno-Garcia, in her own reflections on the 2015 Con, writes:

“I’ve been asked (over and over again) why I’m interested in Lovecraft since he is so problematic. Nick Mamatas pretty much nails the answer in his essay “Why Write Lovecraftian Fiction?” which concludes:

“We read Lovecraft’s work and write Lovecraftian fiction, but we don’t side with his sallow protagonists and their nervous fits-we see ourselves in the glory of the Outsider Things.”

That’s my reaction, too.

Lovecraft was almost pathologically racist, brimming with biological anxieties which found their way into his stories. Even when he’s not afraid of other races, I would say he is afraid of genetic inferiors, constantly consumed with thoughts about degeneration, about lineages and disease.”

(You can read my earlier PstD interview with Moreno-Garcia here.)

Also among the panelists was Canadian novelist and journalist David Nickle, who notes:

“there are other things going on in Lovecraft too: there’s the bestiary/pantheon of fantastically alien gods and monsters; that overheated prose that veers so easily between the sublime and the leaden; his fearful, bookish characters. But those are characteristics, aesthetics; not fundamentals. They are not the agenda.”

(You can read my earlier PstD interview with Nickle here.)

Both are surely right that the vast majority of Lovecraft’s readers, myself included, are drawn to Lovecraft’s fiction by things other than his racist views. But critically, Lovecraft’s racism is, in certain respects, finally inseparable from his aesthetics, and Lovecraft scholarship has only recently began to examine the degree to which they are imbricated, and what the effects of this imbrication are.

Of course, the same is true for the history of Western aesthetics in general. Consider, for example, Plato’s foundational remarks on the beauty of whiteness (so aptly parodied by another dead-white-great American weird fictionist, Melville, in Moby-Dick). Or consider Edmund Burke’s comments on, and supposedly empirical evidence for, the natural repulsion “we” feel when faced with black skin, in his Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, a text which informed much of Lovecraft’s thought (like that of over a century of Gothic writers preceding him), and seems to have particularly inspired the opening sentence of Supernatural Horror: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

In Lovecraft’s case, these imbrications are particularly vivid, and therefore can be especially illuminating. Weird fiction titan China Mieville and scholar Jeffrey Weinstock are among those who have recently, and  persuasively, argued that the intensity of Lovecraft’s racialized anxieties contribute to the potency of his fictions. Some of Moreno-Garcia’s and Nickle’s comments, as well as their fictions, suggest that they think similarly.

In his Aug 25, 2014 blog post, “Don’t Mention the War,” Nickle observed:

“In a perverse way, Lovecraft’s retrograde views on race may be his most socially relevant contribution to 20th century weird literature… not as an advocate of his views, not by any means, but as an example of where we’ve been and what too many of us still share, an opportunity to critique those views through the lens of cosmic horror and alien gods.”

Nickle explores Lovecraft’s racial imaginary, alongside that of his North American historical context, effectively in his novel Eutopia, as well as in many of his critical commentaries. Moreno-Garcia does so not only through her own fiction and her editorial and curatorial work, but also through her academic graduate work on Lovecraft and the American eugenics movement of his day.

These are tremendously valuable forays into an unpleasant, unsettling, but very necessary frontier; Lovecraft’s racism (and that of his contemporaries, and that of our contemporaries, and, ultimately, that we ourselves may experience and/or unwittingly propagate) needs to be not only openly acknowledged and discussed but studied, and re-examined not only through academic, but also through creative, lenses.

Doing so is not only necessary for developing our understanding of Lovecraft’s work, and its relationship to the history of racism in the 20th century. More importantly, it is vital for developing our understanding of the pervasive and persistent tendency to view alterity as a source of anxiety, and a site of exclusion and abjection. Lovecraft’s fiction is particularly apt in this respect, because it offers such a vivid and stark imagining of this tendency.

As Robin Wood pointed out in his classic essay “The American Nightmare” over 30 years ago, and as many theorists and writers have noted since, alterity forms much of the conceptual basis, and visceral appeal, of much, if not all, horror and weird fiction (hell, of human literature and culture tout court!). This is one of the things that led to Stephen  King’s pithy remark in Danse Macabre that horror writers are as  Republican as “a banker in a three-piece suit.”


That brings me to the titanic “other hand -” the less positive way in which this NecronomiCon was a more unsettling experience.

Even though he wasn’t wearing a three-piece suit at the time, Robert M. Price rather embodied King’s stereotype during the Con. This is not only true of his controversial remarks during the opening ceremonies (here is a link to the video recording of them, Price’s speech beginning about 50 minutes in, with his “real life ‘Horror at Red Hook’ quip kicking up near the hour mark.) It was also evident during the short fiction reading he gave on Saturday, a Holocaust-exploitation story titled “It Came from the Ovens.”  In a nutshell, the story re-invents Lovecraft’s character, Herbert West, Reanimator, by having him working alongside Josef Mengele’s Nazi doctors in a concentration camp, focusing in pulpy, sensational detail on the torture of Jewish prisoners, from whom he learns the secrets of the Kabbalah. After describing the sofas he assembled from the excised faces of prisoners and similar atrocities, the story goes on to portray West’s creation of a Golem which, in typical revenge-film fashion, then smashes up a bunch of Nazi guards before destroying the animating sigil on its forehead, returning itself to ashes.

Price likely had satirical intentions with the story. In a recent blog post aimed at critics of circumcision, he wrote:

“This is a terrible time for Jews. Vocal and virulent anti-Semitism is on the rise in once-civilized Europe. But of course it was cultured, enlightened Europeans who sent Jews to the gas chambers, wasn’t it? And it was effete, ever-optimistic, naïve Europeans who allowed the annihilation of Jews because they could not believe “Mister Hitler” could actually be such a medieval barbarian as he proved to be. Today things are no different. Bubble-headed Presidents and Secretaries of State assure us that Iran is just kidding when they repeatedly announce their intent to wipe out Israel in a repeat of the Holocaust they disingenuously claim never happened. What happened to “Never again!”? More like “Ever again!”

Price’s politics and his fiction feature some pretty crassly co-ordinated fear-mongering. His reading felt to me like a piece of tasteless and opportunistic provocation, especially when taken in light of his remarks at the opening ceremony, that contemporary North America is facing a real-life “Horror at Red Hook.”

As Niels Hobbs commented during the panel on Lovecraft and Racism, perhaps Price has performed a sort of service by throwing into such high relief what a continuing concern Lovecraft’s worst ideological aspects remain for contemporary readers. Certainly, it shook me out of my complacent tendency to treat many of Lovecraft’s racial and ideological views as essentially historical and textual concerns, and served to remind me that they continue to have a potentially toxic cultural and polemical afterlife of their own.


What does all of this mean, however, for the present, and future, of those literary registers in which Lovecraft worked? The deleterious consequences of the popular (con)fusion of Lovecraft with the broad spectrum of the weird is one that has been pointed out many times, and that many writers, editors and commentators have tried to clarify, notably including Ann and Jeff VanderMeer with their seminal anthology, The Weird. Their introduction to that collection makes the point succinctly:

“The Lovecraft Circle is represented in the early pages of this volume, but not to the exclusion of all else. Why? Because in other places a similar impulse was arising. At roughly the same time Lovecraft penned tales like “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Call of Cthulhu,” Jean Ray, in a Belgian prison, wrote stunning and sophisticated stories like “The Shadowy Street” and “The Mainz Psalter,” Japanese poet Hagiwara Sakutoro composed the hallucinogenic strangeness that is “The Town of Cats,” and Polish writer Bruno Schulz mythologized his childhood in weird stories like “Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass.

These non-Anglo versions of The Weird were not aberrations. In the 1910s, Ryunosuke Akutagawa published the Japanese contes cruel “The Hell Screen” and Franz Kafka, still to remain relatively unknown for decades, wrote the classic of weird ritual “In the Penal Colony,” while in India Rabindrath Tagore wrote his most supernatural tale, “The Hungry Stones” and in Italy Luigi Ugolini penned “The Vegetable Man,” a tale of weird transformation.”

Certainly, I think the organizers of NecronomiCon are making efforts to make the event more balanced and inclusive, and I suspect Price’s antics may be part of a reaction against that.

These efforts, however, need to go a lot further. In his recent reflections on NecronomiCon 2015, Nickle wrote:

“But you know something about all those talks? With a few exceptions, they were all conversations among white, privileged people in the U.S. and Northern Europe, about the extreme racism and xenophobia of a dead white writer. They were conversations that may not have consciously excluded the people of colour who Lovecraft so consistently libelled, but nonetheless didn’t really manage include them.”

Moreno-Garcia also emphasizes this situation, and has offered a few Con-specific suggestions for improving it; you can read her blog post here.


On a less serious note, I’d like to ponder what all of this recognition of politicization means for not only Lovecraft’s monsters, but also the profusion of “innocent” Lovecraftian kewtsch they’ve inspired.

Nested in Chloe Buckley’s recent review of Datlow’s collection, Lovecraft’s Monsters are some striking meditations on the cola-dark sea of Lovecraftian paraphernalia on which we are adrift:

“To Lovecraft literature scholars, the very idea of a cuddly Cthulhu might suggest the pernicious effects of late consumer capitalism on what was once a truly subversive modernist literature. S. T. Joshi, for example, decries the decline of Weird fiction, stating that ‘the amount of meritorious weird fiction being written today is in exactly inverse proportion to its quantity’ (2001, 1). Alternatively, to die-hard Lovecraft fans, the appearance of Cthulhu in children’s cartoons is an example of the inevitable “gushing up” to the mainstream of subcultural production. However, this polemic of radical art vs. conservative commodity, or, differently configured, transgressive subcultural form versus mainstream pop cultural work has always been to some extent resisted by the Weird tale and the Weird monster. Lovecraft’s work is neither properly modernist, nor properly post-modern; it is originally a pulp fiction that has accrued a (sub)cultural status, equated by some critics with outsider art; it is also deeply embedded in the highly commodified ‘geek culture’ that continues to become more and more mainstream.”

Innocuous octopi...or something far more sinister?

Innocuous octopi…or something far more sinister?

My thoughts about “tweird” HPL bric-a-brac went down a different track after David Nickle struck me with one of his characteristically incisive comments during a brief in-transit conversation at the Con. He suggested that sporting a Lovecraftian icon (say, a Miskatonic University t-shirt, or a plush shoggoth doll, or a Cthulhu-fish decal) could be perceived as a little like hanging a confederate flag above one’s mantelpiece.

Is it possible that, in the years to come, people are going to look back on the current Lovecraft craze, and its volcanic eruption of kewtsch, with the kind of fascinated horror with which most of us regard wooden cigar store Indians or those classic Disney cartoons from the 1930s, with the Bat Bandit, Chinky the Cook, and similar characters?


Is my six-year-old-daughter going to drag the pink-and-blue hand-knit Cthulhu we gave her in 2013 out of her closet in fifteen years, and groan, “DAMN, DAD, WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING WITH ALL THIS LOVECRAFT CRAP?”

Somewhat more seriously, given the degree to which the monsters of our cultural imaginaries through the course of history are inflected by our own social and psychological anxieties and epistemological limitations, what might these mean for alterity-inflected monsters whose racialized context is a little less obvious?

Grendel, as all-too-humanly imagined for the cover of John Gardner's novel.

Grendel, as all-too-humanly imagined for the cover of John Gardner’s 1971 novel.

In any case, while I don’t think there is anything to be gained by denying Lovecraft’s importance, influence, or continuing power to fascinate (or in trying to quell the generative memetic quality his creatures have for cutesy caricature) the continued tendency to treat Lovecraft as a metonym, a personalized fetish, for the broad, dimly-lit, transnational, and even transhuman, field of the weird is disastrously misleading.

To awkwardly paraphrase Poe, “if in many of our productions weirdness has been the thesis, we maintain that weirdness is not of Lovecraft, but of the soul.”

Sean Moreland

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Over the more than 150 years since Poe’s untimely demise, there have been many anthologies themed around his life and writings, of widely varying emphasis and quality. While a few have focused on Poe’s legacy in terms of detective fiction, science fiction, or poetry, the vast majority have emphasized Poe as the grand-pappy of, and a marketing locus for, modern horror fiction.


Two notable earlier 21st century examples are Poe’s Children: The New Horror, edited by Peter Straub (Anchor Books, 2008) and Poe: 19 New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe (Solaris, 2009), edited by Ellen Datlow. Both these earlier collections hold a place of importance in terms of Poe’s continuing popular association with literary horror, but in very different ways. Straub’s anthology is a monumental tome containing over 600 pages of haunting stories by some of the late 20th/early 21st century’s most influential dark fictionists. The anthology’s title and subtitle, however, are probably the weakest thing about it. They clash misleadingly for a number of reasons.


First, the word “new:” the careers of several of the writers whose work this anthology showcases, including Straub himself and the omni-prevalent Stephen King (whose story “Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” is more reminiscent of one of Poe’s satiric extravaganzas than one of his horror tales) date back to the 1970s. Referring to Straub and King (and even Ramsey Campbell and Thomas Ligotti) as “new horror” in 2008 gives an inaccurate impression of what the anthology is all about. In fact, because I am a crabby pedant who is also tired of seeing Stephen King yarns that I’ve had in paperback since 1985 repackaged alongside new fiction, this almost prevented me from buying the book in the first place.

Rather than the showcase for new and cutting edge horror its title suggests, the anthology is more about rehearsing a lineage that supposedly runs from Poe through King and Straub to writers as diverse as Thomas Ligotti, Elizabeth Hand and Glen Hirshberg (an in-store perusal of the stories by these writers, by the way, was what persuaded me to buy the book after all.) The logic runs, I suppose, that they are all “new” in relation to Poe. What, then, about all those writers from 1849 to the 1970s, including, say, Shirley Jackson, or H.P. Lovecraft? They don’t feature in this lineage?

Second, the subtitle is misleading because many of the stories it includes don’t fit readily under the umbrella label “horror.” This tonal and thematic range, however, is one of the anthology’s greatest strengths. In terms of its more recent contributors, it covers a large, dimly-lit field, running from Ligotti’s “Notes on the Writing of Horror” (particularly Poesque in its fusion of cruel critical alacrity and cold, creeping dread) to Glen Hirshberg’s heartbreakingly poignant (but not, by most standards, “horror”) story “The Two Sams” (this collection actually served as my introduction to Hirshberg’s fiction, so was worth the purchase for that alone.)

My third objection to the anthology’s titular concatenation is that, despite its deft use of the uncanny and its powerful tone of “mournful and never-ending remembrance,” there is very little Poe-esque about Hirshberg’s story, and this is also true for a number of the other fictions in the anthology, including Straub’s own contribution. Perhaps the subsuming of a wide range of modern dark fiction to Poe’s supposed legacy may have had some marketing utility, but, despite the great strength of the individual stories it contains, it is ultimately for me the reason why, as a book, particularly one supposedly themed on Poe, Straub’s anthology falls a little flat.

Despite his extensive knowledge of literary horror and his admirable continuing attention to the emergence of new writers and new styles in the field, this is where Straub is sometimes lacking as an editor/anthologist, or as a critic and genre historian: his need to situate the work his anthologies assemble in terms of the late 20th century, quasi-realist New England dark fabulism he shares with Stephen King, and his need to fulfill the obligations of mass-market publishing. Ah well. Poe understood what bizarre bedfellows literary criticism and commercialism make better than most.


Datlow’s Poe-themed anthology, on the other hand, would have been better served by the sub-title “the new horror,” as it showcases an array of newer work, much of it technically ambitious, delightfully transgressive, and thought, as well as sensation, provoking. It doesn’t vie for mainstream, mass-market appeal by the inclusion of “blockbuster” fiction, or make a somewhat fusty case for itself as “serious literature” the way Children of Poe does.

It is also not a collection of reprint-fiction gathered together under Poe’s umbrella, but a collection of original fiction, commissioned just for the occasion. Each story is directly occasioned by some piece of Poe’s writing, and is followed by an authorial commentary that reinforces the connection between the new story and one of Poe’s writings. It includes some of the finest examples of how overt pastiche, allusion, and homage can become transmuted by the right authorial hands into something amazing, unsettling and perversely new in its own right – and this, really, is what Poe himself did best in tales like “The Black Cat” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Three of the best examples from the collection include John Langan’s perversely pedagogical “Masque of the Red Death” revision, “Technicolor,” Kim Newman’s brain-clawing corporate horror tale, “Illimitable Domain,” and Kaaron Warren’s Poe-tourism inspired “The Tell.”


In many respects, Nancy Kilpatrick and Caro Soles’ recent nEvermore (Edge Publishing, 2015) taps a similar vein to that of Datlow’s Poe, and it does it with admirable deftness. The book identifies itself as “Neo-Gothic Fiction Inspired by the Imagination” of Poe. It features 22 stories, each of them explicitly inspired by and responding to one or more pieces of Poe’s corpus, and each prefaced by a brief comment from the author(s) indicating its point de depart in Poe.

One way in which the collection departs from Datlow’s is that the stories are usually shorter, and tend (with a couple of notable exceptions) toward the pulpier end of the Poe spectrum – they emphasize sensation rather than subtlety.

Another is that, rather than aiming for the kind of atmospheric horror that predominates in Poe, many illustrate Poe’s fusion of various literary modes with a very modern sort of horror. The introduction by Uwe Sommerlad stresses Poe’s “genre crossing” tendencies, emphasizing the close relationship between Poe’s hyperbolic hoaxes (“The Balloon Hoax,” “Mesmeric Revelation,”) and his absurd extravaganzas (“The Scythe of Time,” “The Man Who Was Used Up’”) his tales of adventure (“The Gold Bug,” The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym), and those of detection (“The Purloined Letter,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue”), his tales of compulsive confession (“The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart”) and his Gothic fantasies (“The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death.”)

Poe’s tendency to fuse these modes is something many of his readers fail to note (even one so acute and devoted as Lovecraft, who praised Poe’s “cosmic horror” while denigrating his satiric tales, failing to realize how intrinsically tied the two modes were for Poe, and how important this was for Poe’s proto-absurdist achievement), but many of the stories that comprise nEvermore adopt a similar tendency with a manic mixture of grue and glee.

Certainly, straight-no-chaser horror stories are abundantly represented. Christopher Rice’s “Naomi” is a chilling twist on “The Tell-Tale Heart” whose violent terror erupts from its hard-eyed portrayal of homophobia. Lisa Morton’s “Finding Ulalume” uses Poe’s “ghoul-haunted” musical poem to springboard a fast-paced piece of barrel-down horror. Richard Christian Matheson’s staccato “133” rebounds, ellipsis-struck, like a bullet off the side of Poe’s sepulchred “Ligeia.” Carol Weekes and Michael Kelly’s collaboration “The Ravens of Consequence” mirrors the cumulative effect of its source poem, building a textured eeriness that would make it at home amongst the stories in the Datlow collection.

Probably the most formally ambitious story in the collection is “Afterlife,” a collaboration between William F. Nolan, Jason V. Brock and Sunni Brock, which synthesizes aspects of Poe’s legend and biography with his late cosmogonic poem Eureka, putting the results under a kind of amnesiac erasure. The oddest inclusion in the collection is without a doubt a previously unpublished piece of Poe-inspired juvenilia by none other than Margaret Atwood, interesting more for its glimpse into the formation of one of Canada’s most important living writers than as a fiction in itself (for my money, Tennessee Williams’s teenaged weird tales were a lot more interesting.)

In terms of its resonant terror and linguistic control, nothing else in the collection can compete with Tanith Lee’s “The Return of Berenice.” Like one of Poe’s deceptively essayistic tales (“The Imp of the Perverse,” or “Murders in the Rue Morgue,”) it begins more as a periphrastic exposition of “Berenice” than a story itself. Following its recounting of that tale’s events, however, it builds upon them in describing the fate that awaited the unfortunate Egaeus after the end of Poe’s narrative. It is an apt sequel to what may well be Poe’s most horrific tale, and a worthy testament to the career of a writer of tremendous insight and power. Lee did much to open and explore the mythic and lyrical possibilities of fantasy and horror fiction, and deserves a “mournful and never-ending remembrance” of her own. In that spirit, I’ll close by quoting the last line of Lee’s story:

“Creatures of air and wind, we: vehicles, playthings of the gods.”


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Film Review: Felt (2014)


I made it out to Ottawa’s gorgeously storied Mayfair Theatre a couple of weeks back (something I don’t do nearly enough) to see Jason Banker’s latest film, Felt, because I admired his earlier Toad Road (2012).

My Mayfair viewing experiences are always slightly skewed by the feeling that this phallus-headed Geigerspawn is watching me.

My Mayfair viewing experiences are always slightly skewed by the feeling that this phallus-headed Geigerspawn is watching me.

I was glad I did. While it finally fails to “work” both as a horror film and as an artistic manifesto, its uneasy fusion of these modes succeeds in other ways. Felt made me acutely uncomfortable, and the discomfort it engendered kept me thinking long after leaving the theatre.

Felt is the result of an unusual collaboration between director Jason Banker and artist/co-writer/lead actor Amy Everson. Banker’s only previous feature Toad Road is a slow-burn exercise in gutter-cosmic horror (to borrow an apt term from writer Nicole Cushing) reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly re-imagined by Harmony Korine. A hypnotic trip down an acid-burn rabbit hole, Toad Road has earned its cult status, a status sadly inflected by the early death of its lead actor Sara Anne Jones not long after the film’s release.


Like Toad Road, Felt aggressively perforates the skin that separates documentary from fictional horror, and does so in ways worlds apart from the found-footage format that has come to dominate so many contemporary horror films. In Felt, Everson portrays Amy, an artist who tries to use her creations to cope with, and overcome, her trauma as the survivor of unspecified sexual assault(s) that occurred prior to the film’s opening. Felt is remarkable in its refusal to frame the sexual abuse that Amy suffered onscreen. In this, it resists the easy aestheticization of sexualized violence that so many thrillers and horror films exploit, and deviates from the rape-revenge films it, in other respects, invokes.

Like Everson herself, Amy creates sculptures, costumes, and found-object installations, most of them grotesquely exaggerated genitalia and/or satirical emblems of traditional gender roles (it is worth pointing out that the film’s title is a double entendre also reflected in the title of the website Everson runs with her partner Michael Lovan; ifeltyourpenis.com offers clients made-to-order felt penis replicas.) The film often seems to want to be a documentary about Everson and her art, and in one sense, it might have been more effective if it had been allowed to become such, rather than adopting the basic narrative structure of a rape-revenge film. Still, Felt achieves some powerful effects by uneasily fusing Everson’s activist art with Banker’s fascination for exploitation horror.

Felt explores Amy’s struggles through desultory scenes, contrasting her troubled interpersonal relationships with the meaning and security she finds in her creations. The most unforgettable scenes in the film are those depicting Amy’s solitary burlesques, as she sheds her anxiety, her awkwardness, her self by becoming the costumes she has created. She lopes predatorily through a forest wearing a coarse mask, skin-tight white catsuit and heavily dangling belted dildo; she poses on a hilltop before a stunning San Francisco sunset, flexing her massive prosthetic biceps, rotating her masked head until the sun silhouettes her Schwarzeneggeresque profile. Such scenes are made more effective by the subdued, almost Debussyan score that accompanies them.


On the other hand, those scenes in which Amy interacts with other characters are often painfully awkward, involving jarring cuts, pore-popping close-ups, and grating non-sequiturs. This contrast illuminates the power of the mask-uline identity Amy armours herself with, as opposed to the fear and frustration of her thwarted attempts to find intimacy and trust.

In terms of its plot, Felt finally holds few surprises; it is obvious from the outset that Amy will inevitably propagate the violence she’s experienced. Spoiler warnings about the film’s conclusion seem pointless, since its sever-and-spurt climax is so obviously foreshadowed. Equally pointless, it seems to me, are complaints about how unrealistic its final act of violence looks; by its closing scenes, Felt burlesques the rape-revenge films it critiques. Like its protagonist, it sheds its nuance as it loses itself in a grotesque caricature, failing to fulfill its possibilities by crawling inside a generic prosthesis.

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Our Midsummer Metamorphosis

Illustration by James Greatrex

Illustration by James Greatrex

Dear readers: Postscripts to Darkness is undergoing change. A sublimation, if you will, passing from a solid to a translucently gaseous state. In the spirit of spectrality, we’re shedding our bulky paper body and becoming a disembodied, internet-only presence. Our sixth volume, published this spring, marks the final iteration of our print series. All volumes remain available for purchase through our online store (if you don’t own a copy yet of all six, complete your collection!).

Moving forward, we will continue to unsettle readers with new web features roughly every two months, alternating between the extensive author retrospectives for which we are already known (featuring David Nickle, Glen Hirshberg, Nicole Cushing, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and Michael Rowe among others), original fiction features, and poetry features. Each new feature will be accompanied by a commissioned illustration by a mind-warpingly talented visual artist, and will offer an insightful commentary from/interview with the featured author.

With this new format we are moving, for the foreseeable future, to an invitation-only model for fiction and poetry, and thus we will be closed to submissions from writers. Sean Moreland will curate new and reprinted fiction (with occasional guest-edited contributions), while Dominik Parisien will continue his fine work as our poetry editor.

Keep your eyes on this space for announcements about our next featured writers/illustrators….

Your affectionate editorial fiend,

Sean Moreland